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Mayor Larson lays plans for Duluth to boost housing, combat opioids, climate change

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson delivers her State of the City address Monday at Lincoln Park Middle School. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 2
State of the City audience members applaud Mayor Emily Larson after she talked about battling the opioid problem. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 2

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson demonstrated no timidity in taking on some of the city's big challenges Monday night during her second-ever State of the City address.

Speaking to an audience assembled at the Lincoln Park Middle School auditorium, Larson laid out three priorities for the coming year:

  • Taking hold of the opioid epidemic;
  • Boosting the city's inventory of affordable housing;
  • And reducing the city's use of fossil fuels.

Citing a passage she received in a letter several weeks ago, Larson quoted: "Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach."

Toward that end, she announced a plan to combat opioid drug addiction.

Opioid initiative

Larson noted that deaths from heroin and opioid drug overdoses in St. Louis County have more than doubled during the past few years.

Perhaps even more alarmingly, she observed that: "St. Louis County has the highest per capita rate of opioid-related drug overdoses in the state — higher even than Hennepin and Ramsey counties."

Larson said that too often first responders stabilize people who have overdosed only to have them resume drug use in short order.

"Even if a patient is ready to seek treatment, the tools and resources needed to break the cycle do not currently exist," she said, noting that it can take weeks to gain entry into a treatment program.

"So, our commitment as a city is to work with St. Louis County, the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment, the 6th Judicial Court, local hospitals and other partners to create an opioid withdrawal unit — a safe place for those who overdose and want help to go medically withdraw and be connected seamlessly to other support and resources," Larson said.

Larson also proposed the city work with a group called Opioid Abuse Response Strategies (OARS) to sponsor a summit that brings together experts, educators and advocates to help identify the most effective ways to fight opioid use.

"We make this commitment today to those suffering the abuse of opioid drug addiction — and your loved ones and your families. We see you, hear you, and will not leave you behind," she said.

Affordable housing

Larson pointed to a 2014 study that projected Duluth would need to add 4,500 new housing units by 2020 to meet the needs of residents. She said the city appears to be well on pace to meet the demand for market-rate housing, and her administration will continue to work with private developers interested in bringing more of these units onto the market.

But Larson said that for the remaining three years of her term, "we'll put more focus and resources into addressing the housing gap for Duluth families earning less than $50,000 a year." She noted that about half of the city's working families fall into that income bracket.

"These are families that are working one, two or more jobs, young professionals that are burdened with debt, and seniors who want to stay in their own neighborhoods but need housing options to be able to do so," Larson said.

"Without our full attention to affordability, we will fall significantly short in meeting the housing needs of these moderate- and lower-income families," she warned.

In the face of waning federal and state resources, Larson said Duluth will need to come up with homegrown housing solutions.

She pledged to create a housing fund that could invest $1 million to $2 million over the next three years to stimulate the creation of affordable owner-occupied housing. Larson suggested the city could focus on using tax-forfeited properties and renovating neglected housing.

Larson also said the city would partner with employers to explore ways to provide more workforce housing.

"These steps will not solve our housing shortage completely, but they are critical steps we can take now to start moving forward," she said.

Energy push

While some prominent elected officials on the national and state levels continue to question mankind's contribution to global warming, Larson said: "Let me state unequivocally, here in Duluth, we believe that climate change is real.

"We can't solve it alone," she said. "But we can begin mending the part of the world that we can reach."

To do its part, Larson said she would work to cut the city's greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent by the end of her four-year term as mayor, with the goal of achieving an 80 percent reduction by 2050.

Larson said the city will focus on improved energy conservation, transitioning to renewable energy sources such as solar power and reducing emissions from its municipal utilities.

In closing, Larson told the audience: "Each of the priorities I've laid out starts here, with us, right now. Working together locally, staying connected, and starting to mend this part of the world we can reach."

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