In gearing up for the next big policy fight, affordable housing advocates in Minneapolis have found an unexpected ally in the city's police chief.

Wading into social issues once thought outside the duties of his office, Chief Medaria Arradondo has joined other city officials in arguing that housing the city's most vulnerable and neediest residents is not only a moral obligation, but is also a matter of public safety.

A trip last year to the medium-security prison in Faribault proved eye-opening for Arradondo. Invited to speak to inmates there by a childhood friend who is serving a sentence for murder, he went into the visit expecting to be grilled on race and police brutality. Instead, the discussions largely revolved around the dire shortage of affordable housing for people leaving prison, Arradondo said.

"When he reached out to me, it was really important for me to go up there and really to listen and learn from many of these young men, who are from my city, who are from Minneapolis, and to hear their stories," he said in an interview.

The inmates also cautioned that the struggle to find housing after prison had driven some of their peers back into their criminal ways.

"And you're going to look at it as a crisis of crime and disorder, but it's really a crisis of demand," Arradondo recalled them telling him. "When you have a crisis in housing, you have a crisis in humanity."

The chief's support comes after advocates last month celebrated the passage of Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey's 2019 budget, $40 million of which is earmarked for affordable housing. Meanwhile, the City Council has approved a sweeping change to the city's comprehensive plan that allows higher-density development, which some see as one way of easing a deepening housing crunch.

Housing has always been a priority for Arradondo, who invested department resources into the sprawling homeless encampment that sprouted off Hiawatha Avenue this summer before its residents were moved to a transitional shelter late last year.

After a report last year second-guessed the department's enforcement of nuisance property laws, which critics said were being used to uproot tenants in low-income and minority neighborhoods, Arradondo moved quickly to adopt some of study's recommendations, which included shifting responsibility for the landlord trainings to the city's Regulatory Services division. The ordinance was later changed. He also approved the creation of a new position meant to bridge the gap between police and people who are homeless.

Minneapolis Highrise Representative Council organizer John Stumme says that Arradondo has been to several meetings, listening as residents aired their concerns about crime and offered solutions for improving police-community relations. The chief also made an appearance at the council's annual cookout.

"He knows public housing, he knows residents, and I think he has a genuine soft spot for public housing residents," Stumme said of Arradondo, whose three-decade department career includes a stint in the now-defunct public housing unit.

About a third of the county's nearly 26,000 people on probation live in Minneapolis, according to county spokeswoman Carolyn Marinan. Of that number, roughly 8 percent are considered homeless. Eight years after Minneapolis closed the waiting list for public housing vouchers and with the city's affordable housing vacancy rate hovering around 2 percent, former offenders have few places to turn, according to Jeff Horwich, director of policy and external affairs for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority.

"We have public housing waitlists that are 18,000 people long for 6,000 units of public housing," he said, pointing to some signs of progress, including a 72-unit supportive housing development for the North Loop called Great River Landing. The first residents will start moving in this summer.

Crime and homelessness

Studies have consistently shown a link between unstable living situations and crime.

According to research findings released last fall by the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based public policy think tank, formerly incarcerated people are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public; those who have been locked up more than once are 13 times more likely.

Housing instability is yet another worry for parolees, many of whom are a bad decision away from being back behind bars, according to Sasha Cotton, Minneapolis' youth violence prevention coordinator, who runs Project L.I.F.E., a heralded intervention program for gang members looking to get out of the street life. Some move into shelters on getting out, or live with girlfriends or relatives, she said, while pointing out that those arrangements are often only temporary.

"Our number one request for services for the guys we work with is housing," she said recently. "First of all, in Minneapolis finding housing that's affordable I think is hard for anybody."

Most shelters have long waitlists, she said. And even before the affordable housing shortage hit, few landlords were willing to consider renters with lengthy criminal histories, and those who were often demanded as much as three months' rent up front, Cotton says.

"So the guy maybe working at Buffalo Wild Wings or working at Target, how's he supposed to come up with $3,000 and do it legitimately?" she asked, forcing some into having to "beg, borrow, steal or rob because I don't have a place to stay."

More so than his predecessors in the job, Arradondo has been "outspoken about the issues of fairness and equity that drive people to crime," said Eighth Ward Council Member Andrea Jenkins, who sits on the public safety committee.

"I'm not surprised that Chief Arradondo is looking at this from a more holistic, intersectional approach," she said. "I mean, it totally makes sense: He's from the community, he understands a lot of the dynamics that create the conditions in the very low-income communities, so I'm not surprised that he's having this conversation and is concerned about these issues."

Some critics say that Arradondo should be more focused on transforming the department's culture. And while some activists have lauded Arradondo for being sensitive to the needs of the city's less fortunate residents, they opposed his demands for more police funding, arguing that the money should instead be funneled into public investments, including affordable housing, education and mental health care.

But Arradondo says that his goals and those of activists are the same.

"There is no way that you can be experiencing homelessness and not have that affect you in terms of your wellness, and that is traumatic in and of itself," he said, "and sometimes we separate the two."

Libor Jany • 612-673-4064 Twitter:@StribJany

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Minneapolis closed the waiting list for public housing, The waiting list for public housing vouchers was closed.