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Hennepin County is taking a new approach to increase affordable housing for residents with the lowest incomes and people struggling with homelessness.

A newly released report from a county task force initiated last year details a comprehensive plan to develop strategies to create and support single room occupancy housing. The report envisions such housing as multi-family or converted single-family homes with quality single rooms, shared kitchens and shared or individual bathrooms,

Single-room occupancy housing should be affordable to households with incomes at or below 30% of the area median income or rented to single adults experiencing homelessness or housing instability with enough income to afford the rent, according to the task force. The report also outlines options for zoning codes, construction designs, operation and management and financing.

Single-room housing disappeared across the United States in the 1970s. Minneapolis lost a significant facility with single rooms when the Drake Hotel burned down in a Christmas Day fire in 2019. The city did open Stephens Square Residence in 2020, which has 32 rooms that cost residents $375 a month.

"This could really be a game changer when addressing homelessness from a regional perspective," said County Commissioner Angela Conley.

The task force, which met monthly, is made up of representatives from the county, cities, homeless shelters and advocacy groups, construction companies and people who have experienced homelessness. The report was recently presented and accepted at the county board's Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

The task force is another piece of the county's effort to reduce racial disparity in affordable housing. There are 73,660 households in the county with incomes below 30% of the area median with only 14,192 housing units affordable to them.

Three out of five county households with incomes below 30% of the median pay more than half of their monthly income toward housing costs, said Julia Welle Ayres, the county's director of housing development and finance.

"Each night, at least 200 people stay in homeless shelters that could afford this type of housing," she said.

The report show several examples of rowhouses, office buildings and a hospital in the state and across the United States that have been converted into single-occupancy housing. There were also several motel or hotels that were rehabbed into such housing.

The county bought several motels to house the homeless or vulnerable people who may contracted COVID-19, and Commissioner Chris LaTondresse suggested they should consider converting them into permanent single-occupancy housing.

Since Minneapolis has most of the homeless shelters in the county, Commissioner Debbie Goettel wanted to know the barriers to developing this kind of housing in other cities. Commissioner Jeff Lunde was concerned that cities who haven't made affordable housing a priority won't consider this new concept.

Board chair Marion Greene said she got to know a constituent who was homeless, even though he was working multiple jobs.

"Something's fundamentally broke if you work hours and hours and can't afford housing," she said. "Real lives are being impacted."