Coming Home to Ramsey: Housing Diversity and Community Resilience

Photo © Steve Schneider, 2017

Historically, the City of Ramsey has developed like most suburban communities in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. In the 1970s, when Ramsey incorporated as a city, residential development was characterized by single-family detached housing—ramblers and split-level homes built on large, rural lots with private well and septic systems. By the mid-1980s, municipal sewer and water services became available, and lot sizes began to shrink, although most housing continued to be single-family detached homes.

Today, the City of Ramsey is keenly aware of the housing options that are available to residents—both current and prospective. “In the past, there have not been a lot of housing options for first-time homebuyers and young families,” noted Tim Gladhill, Ramsey’s community development director. “So when people moved out of their family house, they had to leave the community to be able to find housing. At the same time, the elderly population struggled to find housing that fit their desires.”

Rather than simply surrendering to market forces and hoping for the best, Ramsey has taken a proactive approach to attracting a diverse range of housing that is affordable to residents of various income levels and that accommodates a variety of lifestyles and household situations. Many of the housing options in Ramsey today are still traditional single-family detached units on quarter-acre lots, which often prove to be too costly for first-time buyers or downsizing empty-nesters. But Ramsey has also encouraged development of higher density townhomes, apartments, and other affordable units in The COR, the city’s mixed-use downtown area. “We want our residents to be able to stay close and be able to [access] the entire housing spectrum without leaving Ramsey,” Gladhill noted, as he explained the reasoning behind the city’s current housing plan.

This year’s partnership with RCP has provided an opportunity to further investigate the community’s current housing situation and future needs as Ramsey prepares to update its housing plan in 2018. This fall, RCP paired Gladhill with Dr. Becky Yust’s class, “Housing and the Social Environment,” in the College of Design. Yust and her students are working with Gladhill to identify potential housing options for Ramsey that would create what Yust refers to as a “life-span community.”

As a class assignment, Yust had each student in the class select a demographic profile—for example, a newlywed, a senior, or a single young professional—and attempt to find appropriate housing in the city that would meet their lifestyle needs and budget. One student in the class, Nima Meghdari, explained that although he is not part of the demographic he was assigned to, he found the experience to be eye-opening. “Every single group is a little different. . .[and] it’s really hard to put yourself in their shoes,” he explained.

Meghdari took on the persona of an aging senior resident. He found that accommodations most appropriate for this demographic tend to cater to those with a higher income level, effectively shutting out many less well-off seniors. In addition, the housing that is affordable tends to segregate senior residents from the rest of the city and from people of other ages. To address this situation, Meghdari will recommend that Ramsey build such housing closer to the center of town to provide better access to amenities and services.

Meghdari wasn’t the only student in Yust’s class who proposed moving housing that catered to their assumed demographic from Ramsey’s periphery to its more community-oriented core. Most students explained that a sense of community is vital to a healthy population, and noted that while the City may already know this, it doesn’t hurt to remind them how historical residential development patterns in Ramsey persist and continue to work against that goal.

Housing students touring Oak Terrace Estates. Photo by Dan Herrera, 2017. © The Regents of the University of Minnesota.

Oak Terrace Estates, a manufactured home park in Ramsey that is nestled along the city’s busy Highway 10 corridor, is a case in point. Although the park contains Ramsey’s most affordable housing, it is physically isolated from the rest of the city and is essentially accessible only via automobile.

Gladhill noted that Ramsey has made it a high priority to reconnect Oak Terrace residents to the rest of the community. One approach has been to connect residents with community organizations such as Youth First, a local nonprofit that works with underserved and at-risk middle and high school students in and around Ramsey. Youth First is strategically located next to Oak Terrace so youth in the neighborhood can access the organization’s services without depending on transportation. “Many of them have been coming to our program for years,” commented Amanda Sappa, the organization’s executive director. “They see our center as a second home.”

Youth First ensures that each of its program participants has access to what it calls the five fundamental promises for success: caring adults, safe places, a healthy start, effective education, and opportunities to give back. The program is popular among young residents of Oak Terrace, and has helped to connect some youths to the larger community. Sappa recalled that the organization took students to the city’s Holiday Tree lighting ceremony last winter, and to a community tree planting event in the spring.

Still, such trips are not enough to overcome the physical isolation of the manufactured home park, or the stigma often associated with living in a low-income area. Unfortunately, for the city’s poorer residents, developments like Oak Terrace are the only housing available. According to Gladhill, “For those 90 or so households in Oak Terrace Estates, there isn’t another housing option for them within Ramsey at that price.”

So what can be learned from the exercise that Yust’s students engaged in with Ramsey? Simply put, although Ramsey has a relatively diverse housing stock for an outer-ring suburb, housing options are tight. Some residents, like those in Oak Terrace Estates, may want to leave their lonely corner of town but can’t afford to live elsewhere in the city. Others may have the financial means to move closer to The COR or to other areas of the city with better access to jobs, retail, parks, or schools, but housing that meets their lifestyle needs or household situation is limited and in high demand.

To be fair, this problem is hardly unique to Ramsey. Meghdari noted that “it’s a larger picture issue. . . . When it comes to housing, there are very few communities that are doing something that makes a difference.” But the class agreed that one thing does make Ramsey stand apart from its suburban peers: the mere fact that the City sees the issue and is trying to address it.

The students hope that their work—and the work of other classes that are participating in the RCP partnership—will help guide the City’s decision making by helping policy makers better understand the housing needs of both current and future residents. “Twenty years ago we had a vision. . .to change the makeup of our housing stock,” Gladhill noted. With the insight into demographic-specific housing preferences provided by Yust and her students, Gladhill and his colleagues aim to transform that vision into a reality.

By Dan Herrera

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