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Ramsey County plans to levy a nearly $12 million property tax that will help fund a first-of-its-kind plan to build and preserve affordable housing and support minority-owned small businesses.

County officials want to activate the Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) levy in 2022 to pay for their new Economic Inclusion and Competitiveness Plan. That will raise about $11.5 million annually in additional property taxes, at a cost of about $45 a year for a median-valued home of $245,700. Ramsey is the only metro county that doesn't collect a levy through either its HRA or economic development authority.

"There is a significant housing crisis and Ramsey County has not been an aggressive funder at the table historically. We intend to change that," said Kari Collins, Ramsey County community and economic development director. "This plan demonstrates we can no longer be reactive when it comes to both supply and preservation of affordable housing."

Collins said the county will use the HRA tax to seed this equity and affordable housing work, leveraging more funding from state, federal and private partnerships. The plan stresses that investing in communities of color will grow the prosperity and economic competitiveness of the entire region, she said.

A draft plan was unveiled at a County Board workshop Tuesday, with all seven commissioners praising it.

"I just wanted to express my excitement for this and acknowledge this will probably make some folks uncomfortable," said County Commissioner Nicole Joy Frethem. "There are folks who are just uncomfortable when we talk about things about race equity and diversity."

But Frethem said the only way to end systemic inequities is through bold, systematic solutions like the county's 51-page plan, which highlights housing, educational and wealth disparities between white residents and communities of color in Ramsey County, which are oftentimes worse than national disparities.

For example, Ramsey County needs 500 additional minority business enterprises to match the U.S. minority business ownership rate. The county also needs 15,000 new affordable housing units to meet swelling demand, which has overwhelmed homeless shelters and resulted in outdoor encampments.

The plan lays out 10 overarching strategies, including: preserving and increasing the supply of the most affordable rental units; expanding affordable homeownership and housing stability, especially for communities of color who have experienced "historic wealth extraction"; and developing pathways to Black, Latino, Asian and Indigenous business ownership.

The document references the bulldozing of a large swath of the historically African American Rondo neighborhood in the 1960s to make room for Interstate 94, describing how hundreds of Black residents lost their homes and businesses and the opportunity to build generational wealth.

"While we cannot totally erase the harm caused to past generations by racial discrimination in housing and employment, the county commits to our role in forging a better path forward," said County Board Chairwoman Toni Carter in a letter at the beginning of the draft plan.

During the presentation Tuesday, county staff members spoke about dozens of specific strategies ranging from deeper partnerships with Minnesota Housing to developing underutilized county-owned parcels into affordable housing to offering low-barrier loans and grants to small businesses.

In developing the plan, the county has spent 18 months talking to St. Paul and suburban leaders and residents. Under state law, St. Paul and North St. Paul would need to consent to the county activating its HRA levy within city limits, because they had active HRA levies authorities before 1971.

"We want to learn more about the [HRA levy] details but support the goal of creating additional resources dedicated toward affordable housing and livable wages to give everyone opportunities," said Shoreview Mayor Sandy Martin.

Roseville Mayor Dan Roe was also supportive of the plan and the proposed levy. He said the county's suburban communities want to make sure projects in their neighborhoods will be eligible for some of the funding.

"There is a lot about it that we in Roseville agree with," Roe said.

The county collaborated with the Center for Economic Inclusion, a St. Paul-based nonprofit focused on driving racial equity and inclusion, which provided consulting services.

"It's time to rewrite the story of Ramsey County through the lens of racial equity and inclusion," said founder and CEO Tawanna Black.

Ramsey County is the most diverse in the state, with 40% of its 550,000 residents identifying as Black, Asian, Hispanic or Indigenous.

At Tuesday's meeting, County Commissioner Jim McDonough acknowledged impatience and fatigue around equity talk that goes nowhere. He said this plan is a public commitment to action.

"Today I just want to acknowledge and celebrate an action plan that is before us to do better in our community," he said.

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037