MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — All that was left after the Francis Drake Hotel fire in Minneapolis in 2019 had to be demolished. The Christmas Day disaster left hundreds of people without a home.

Donations for those displaced immediately poured in. The Red Cross helped find temporary emergency shelter in the days after, and Hennepin County was tasked with finding the families new places to live. Julia Welle Ayres is the county’s manager of housing development and finance.

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“Not only seeing all of those families just displaced on Christmas Day, at a time that should be full of hope and comfort and warmth, and then in addition thinking about, ‘What will we do without these housing units going forward?’” Welle Ayres said.

She says the Drake Hotel fire brought attention to the dire need for affordable housing. She says there are more than 70,000 households in Hennepin County that have extremely-low incomes, but there are only 14,000 affordable units available. It’s an even bigger challenge in a year of a pandemic.

“The residents that we’re focusing on right now are those that are vulnerable to complications from COVID-19,” Welle Ayres said.

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(credit: CBS)

The county doled out $21 million in CARES Act funding that helped 7,000 low-income households keep their homes during the pandemic. Welle Ayres says the county learned a lot from the functionality and loss of the Drake Hotel, and is now focusing more on acquiring and developing more properties that offer single-room occupancy.

“The Drake was a rare jewel that provided deeply-affordable housing, for people who are able to pay modest rents and be able to have just independent, dignified housing for it,” she said.

Fire investigators determined the fire originated from a unit in the complex, but did not determine an exact cause.

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Hennepin County was able to find housing for almost all of the residents displaced.

Kate Raddatz