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Housing New Richmond charts bold new course for affordable housing

Housing New Richmond (HNR) has the potential to be one of the most interesting stories of 2019. HNR is an extension of the original coalition of social service, law enforcement, government and faith-based officials formed at the beginning of the Lowrey Hotel crisis. The coalition is in the very early stages of organizing but could end up being an innovative solution for affordable housing surrounding communities could adopt or join.

HNR is dedicated to creating an answer to that tough question about where to house and care for people dealing with physical disabilities, mental illness, criminal records, low credit and low income.

The initial plan calls for the creation of an independent organization capable of bridging the gap between landlords and people in need of affordable housing in New Richmond. The idea calls for raising enough money to help pay for or supplement low and no income residents' ability to rent housing. The organization intends to act as the middleman guaranteeing rent for landlords thereby decreasing their risk and fronting the money for residents. The organization would also provide access for residents to a wide range of counseling and case management services as part of its relationship with residents.

Following several meetings at the conclusion of 2018, HNR had the feel of a snow globe in which ideas, processes and energy have been swirling around at terrific rate but are now starting to settle out.

"I think the thing that we have going for us is we have a good mix of knowledgeable people that have been involved since the beginning back in April that are focused on long-term solutions. They understand the problem, want to do something about it and are willing to see it through. A lot of times, that's more than half the battle," said City Administrator Mike Darrow.

Here are some of the goals and questions remaining.

The first and maybe most significant characteristic of HNR is that it's an independent organization. It's not being operated by the city or any other existing organization. That should allow HNR to operate more nimbly free of government constraints and to consider funding from a wide variety of sources.

In general, the organization initially plans to locate a small number of units, in the neighborhood of 4-6, preferably scattered throughout the downtown area, which they can reach an agreement with the owners to rent.

"So it's not about adding more units, it's really about managing the price of existing units to families or individuals that could not afford to rent them otherwise. It's about making what you have more accessible," said New Richmond Area Community Foundation Executive Director Margaret Swanson.

HNR will need to budget and make arrangement for access to case management services by tenants if they choose to use them. The organization will also have to address property management needs.

On the financial side, HRN will need to raise a sufficient amount of funds to get the program operating initially and then address means to sustain it financially for the long-term. Some of the potential mechanisms being considered include

grants, sponsorships, crowdfunding, scalable and incentivised rent structures, private and business funding and future funding from TIF districts. HRN will also need to consider using a fiscal agent such as the foundation and weigh that against becoming a 501(c)(3).

"I think it's easy for us to make the case for access to affordable housing. It just figuring out the details especially for foundations. They'll want to see what the plan is, who's doing what and what are those commitments, not that it's this loose group that gets together once a month," cautioned Swanson.

HNR will have to address its own administration needs and eventually develop a structure which can oversee a continuum of leadership to sustain the operation indefinitely into the future.

More immediately HRN has arrived at a place where they need to hear from landlords and property owners, to listen to their concerns as well as benefit from their past experiences good or bad with similar proposals.

"The benefit of this approach is that we are not telling landlords they have to lower their rent. HNR will be responsible for the rent and for determining how to best supplement the renters' resources. But we need landlords who are willing to work with us," said Darrow.

To that end HNR held a meeting Jan. 4 at the Civic Center to discuss their ideas with local landlords and property managers. Local property owners and managers curious about the proposal or having experiences to share were invited to attend.

"I'm optimistic. But we're hearing all the great things about what this could be. I know that we need to hear, like with any project, the counter arguments for why this won't be successful form those that have tried to do it before," said Darrow.

More immediate needs include devising a concise description of HNR, its mission, process, goals and shareholders to be able to quickly convey what HNR is to individuals or organizations interested in joining as well as to new developers proposing projects in the New Richmond area. HNR will also need to identify potential rental units, raise initial funding and delegate responsibilities among members to fulfill roles in an advisory council and other committees.

The idea is to start slowly and build this idea sustainably from the start with dignity and respect for all concerned. HNR recognizes that homelessness and access to affordable housing are complicated, frequently emotional challenges that are not going away. Creating the first model here in New Richmond is the easiest, most efficient way to prove the concept.

"It's exciting. Over the last six months with this group, I've seen it, their energy, compassion and caring. So I have a lot of faith in the people who are a part of this, enough to believe that it's going to succeed," said Darrow.