Housing concerns voiced at forum

Staff photo by Connor Cummiskey Chris Dalton, the recently hired New Ulm assistant city manager, was one of about three-dozen people who attended the Regional Forum of the Governor’s Task Force on Housing.

NEW ULM — The task of articulating regional concerns on the housing crisis was the focus of a forum Tuesday evening.

Representing a myriad of housing interests, people from around the region gathered in the Sleepy Eye Event Center for the seventh and final Regional Housing Forum of the Governor’s Task Force on Housing.

Participants started the forum with a large group discussion of issues related to housing.

Accessibility of housing was a primary topic. Volunteers brought up the lack of available houses particularly for people with incomes near the socioeconomic middle.

Most speakers pointed out the only housing available tended to be either too expensive, or income-restricted — which many of what is termed the “missing middle” made too much to get into.

“It is either a $40,000 house that I would not necessarily want to live in or it is $300,000 to $350,000 — that is not affordable housing,” one participant said.

That was linked to one story shared by Christi Currier. She moved to the area with her family after her husband was transferred to Sleepy Eye for work.

The family first stayed in a room at the Best Western Plus in New Ulm. The stress of work, and school being in Sleepy Eye, prompted the family to move into the basement of a church that lacked amenities like a shower.

“We wanted to rent first, to get to know the area, but we could not get into an apartment,” Currier said.

Many of the apartments available were income-restricted. Eventually the family found a house only because they heard of it through “the grapevine.”

Hearing about the house before it was on the market highlighted a phenomenon that was somewhat unique to this region.

Some sellers have delayed putting their house on the market for fear of it selling too fast, leaving them without shelter.

On the supply side, concerns over prevailing rent and cost of construction were prominent. A developer at the forum pointed out that costs were so high that building one house was too expensive. Building a handful to alleviate those costs usually resulted in the houses taking so long to sell that they could become unfeasibly expensive.

Concerns over investment were raised due to the level of prevailing rent. A couple of participants pointed out that the risk of investing in property while rents are so low and costs are so high could discourage further housing development.

After the larger group discussion, participants were divided into small groups based on three topics: homeownership, rental and housing stability, and opportunity.

Each group returned to the larger discussion after roughly an hour, to pitch their big takeaways of the topic.

The homeownership group made the point that employers should be encouraged to invest in their employees’ housing, to make it easier to attract workers.

Housing grants and loans for private developers were also brought up by the group. They wanted red tape surrounding the programs cut back so they were easier to access.

Their final point was to educate homebuyers both on assistive programs that can help in affording a home and on what it takes to help pay for a home once it is bought.

The rental group pointed out there was a shortage of trade-based workers who could help refurbish subpar rental units to make them more desirable.

They also pointed out the need for public-private partnerships and emphasized the need for returns on investments for landlords.

The housing stability group brought up the need for affordable rentals seniors can downsize to after selling their home and stable housing for chronically homeless and people with mental disabilities.

With the last forum wrapped up, the task force will take feedback from five forums in greater Minnesota and two in the metro area to determine housing recommendations.

The report’s deadline is in July and the report should serve as a primer for the future governor and Legislature as they start their new terms.

Feedback from around the state, the full report when it is released and updates can be found at the task force’s website mnhousingtaskforce.com.

Connor Cummiskey can be emailed at ccummiskey@nujournal.com.