Hennepin County Government Center. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.
The Hennepin County Board voted 6-1 on Tuesday to begin negotiating the purchase of hotels to house homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
“I think that this would be a huge asset for us,” said Commissioner Angela Conley during Tuesday’s meeting. “Doing something now that can carry over into that post-Covid world really will change the landscape of how supportive housing could look.”
The move would allow the county to leverage emergency federal funding directed at the current COVID-19 crisis to create long-term affordable housing for homeless residents.
Since March, the county has leased upwards of 600 hotel rooms for homeless people in an effort to limit the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak in crowded shelters and provide isolation space for those infected.
The cost to the county is about $2.5 million per month, which includes meals and staffing at the hotels. Over the long term, it could be cheaper to own rather than rent the hotels. It would also provide the county with an asset at the end of the crisis, which it could sell or lease to a shelter provider.
The county can be reimbursed for leasing or buying the hotels by the federal government through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which will provide Hennepin County with $220 million in aid.
The county will have to spend that money by December 30 or else return it to the U.S. Treasury. Should the health emergency extend into next year, as many experts predict, owning the hotels would allow the county to continue housing homeless individuals long after the CARES Act funding expires.
Commissioner Jan Callison, the lone no vote, voiced concern that the county could be getting in over its head with the purchase.
“I continue to think this is a deceptively simple idea with all sorts of complexities underneath it,” she said at Tuesday’s board meeting.
Callison raised the prospect of high maintenance costs and the inability to off-load the properties once the crisis is over. She and other commissioners also raised concerns about the county breaking with its tradition of not owning shelters.
“We do not own shelter in Hennepin County. We work with the shelter system. We support the shelter system . . . and we’ve asked the state to be our partner. My fear is this will take the state off the hook,” Callison said.
Commissioners Jeff Johnson and Debbie Goettel said they would vote for the proposal under the assumption that the county would not own or operate the properties long-term. Commissioner Mike Opat said he didn’t want to rule out owning the properties long-term and leasing them to a shelter operator.
“If done correctly, it will add another tool to our toolbox in terms of helping folks on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale,” Opat said.
The board has not yet considered specific purchase agreements. The resolution authorizes county staff to negotiate agreements, which would need to be approved by the board.
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