In 2019, Crow Wing County sought a housing study to identify means of tackling a local workforce housing shortage. Early results of that study were presented Wednesday morning, Sept. 2, to the Crosslake Economic Development Authority.

Presenting the study online via Zoom were John Schommer, Brainerd Housing and Redevelopment Authority rehab coordinator, and Eric Charpentier, incoming executive director for the Brainerd HRA.

The study was designed to:

  • Describe the state of housing county-wide.
  • Project future housing needs.
  • Analyze supply vs. demand.
  • Provide recommendations to improve availability and housing choice.

The study had special focus and consideration for affordability for middle income populations and those in the workforce, as well as the local aging population and seasonal homeowners.

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They drew from resources including census records, the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, real estate agents and interviews with people such as housing developers, business owners and school district superintendents.

The study sought to identify "workforce housing," which would be affordable to households in the middle income (making between $20,000-$50,000 per year. It was determined that 49% of workers in the county are in the service industry, with 47% working in either health care or tourism and lodging. About 60% of industry average salaries in the county fall within the middle income range.

In addition, the study reviewed available housing in the area and found that while the largest single proportion of homes in Crow Wing County were built between 2000 and 2009, more than half of the areas had homes built before 1980. Only 3.4% of units were built since 2010.

This means housing "stock" in the county is aging and may require significant rehab to remain feasible as housing. The study also found multi-family dwellings are growing in demand as of 2015. In the next 15 years, the area will need 1,500 housing units to keep up with a growing workforce.

Affordability for much of the area workforce is an issue. Of all housing units across all income levels, 37% are cost burdened. More specifically, 30% of those in owner occupied housing are cost burdened with 51% of those living in renter occupied properties being cost burdened.

Households are considered cost burdened when 30% or more of the monthly gross income is dedicated to housing. Cost burdened households are likely to struggle to pay for other basic needs, including food, repairs and health care.

The study recommended that communities identify potential housing sites, create a down payment assistance program, assist with housing rehabilitation, amend tax forfeited property policies to allow for lower cost sales of housing, use the housing trust fund as incentive for new construction, and host developers on site to build interest.

Documentation provided during the meeting included the following recommendations:

  • Creative housing types, like dormitory style housing, campgrounds with seasonal worker cabins, among others.
  • Programs and incentives, including employer guided down payment assistance programs, housing rehabilitation supplement programs, working with large employers to provide seasonal housing.
  • Policy and regulation changes, such as encouraging municipalities to expedite development approval processes, considering resort taxes to fund housing for seasonal workers and considering flexible zoning for more affordable housing types.

The county has already started to apply some of the recommendations found in the study. In 2016, a housing trust fund was created to help address housing needs. The fund is raised through a county tax levy increase. This year, $500,000 has been approved for the housing trust fund.

The fund can be used to assist in financing production, preservation and stabilization of affordable and mixed-income housing projects. To qualify for these funds, certain needs have to be met. For example, they must meet the target population.

The target population is those of very low income (a household with gross household income at or below 50% of area medium income, $34,800); those of low income (a household with gross income between 50% and 80% of area median income, $34,800-$55,680; or moderate income (a household with gross income between 80% and 115% of area median income, $55,680-$80,040).

The housing trust fund can be used for workforce housing assistance programs, home buyer assistance programs, rehabilitation assistance programs and new construction/development.

The Crow Wing County Housing and Redevelopment Authority uses this trust fund and other resources to promote home ownership. Programs include matching employer contributions of up to $5,000 for down payments or closing costs for purchase of a home and low or zero interest homes depending on what the loans are for.

Tax forfeited properties may also be available at reduced rates through the HRA. While the county traditionally would not sell tax forfeited properties below their value, it can now sell them at cost through the HRA.

These new programs are being introduced to communities through presentations to local bankers and developers currently, though the HRA is working on other options for getting the word out. Advertisements will likely increase in 2021, assuming Crow Wing County continues to approve the group's levy requests.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.