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Study finds countywide need for suitable housing

Steven Griesert of Community Research, Inc., details findings of the Kandiyohi County Comprehensive Housing Study Wednesday at the Health and Human Services Building in Willmar. (RAND MIDDLETON | TRIBUNE)

WILLMAR — A new study of the housing in all 12 cities in Kandiyohi County reinforces what many observers have been saying: Suitable housing is hard to find at all levels of the market.

The comprehensive study also found low vacancy rates for most rental housing, aging housing stock in many neighborhoods that would benefit from rehabilitation and a rising need for housing options for older adults.

Findings from the study were presented Wednesday to the public.

Organizers hope it will lead to action, especially by the private sector, to fill some of the unmet and emerging needs.

The study shows that opportunities exist for local housing development, said Tom Gilbertson, chairman of the Willmar Lakes Area Vision 2040 housing group.

“We’re trying to spur some ideas,” he said. “We need to help bring in and retain newcomers.”

It has been at least a decade since a survey of this scope was undertaken in Kandiyohi County. Results were shared at a meeting Wednesday hosted by the Kandiyohi County Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

Consultants with Community Partners Research Inc. collected data from many sources: the U.S. Census Bureau, state demographer, city and county government records, face-to-face interviews with local leaders, and even walk-throughs of selected neighborhoods. The full report totals more than 900 pages.

Although the picture differs slightly from one city to the next, some common threads ran through the findings.

Rental vacancies are low, whether for market-rate or subsidized housing. At the time the Willmar survey was undertaken, for instance, the vacancy rate for market-rate rental housing was 0.8 percent. For subsidized housing it was even lower, 0.6 percent. Raymond had zero vacancies among its market-rate rental housing.

One of the few exceptions was Spicer, which had a significant number of vacant one-bedroom subsidized housing units when the survey was conducted.

In every city in the county, construction of new owner-occupied homes dropped off dramatically with the onset of the recession in 2008 and is still recovering.

Most of the cities have opportunities for new home construction but many may be limited by a shortage of available lots for development.

Meanwhile, the county’s housing options for older adults are under pressure as the population ages. The study found high occupancy rates, and waiting lists in some cases, for senior housing, assisted living and skilled care.

Consultant Steven Griesert, who led the study, said there’s a perception that Kandiyohi County lacks affordable housing. But in his sidewalk surveys, he noticed many older homes that would qualify as affordable for an entry-level buyer, he said.

“The problem is, are they acceptable to the consumer?” he said.

Initiatives to spur rehabilitation of existing homes to make them attractive to buyers is among the many recommendations made in the study.

The recommendations also call for development of both rental housing and new construction, along with incentives for first-time home buyers to enter the market.

Griesert urged attention to mixed-use Main Street development, especially in cities such as Atwater, New London and Spicer.

When people contemplate moving to a smaller town, one of the first things they usually do is drive down the main street, he said. If it doesn’t feel or look right, “they’re going to move on,” he said.

Decisions about where to live are also often based on a variety of factors — the school system perhaps, or a spouse’s employment or the need to care for an aging parent, Griesert said. “People don’t move for their job anymore ... but some would move there if there was an opportunity.”

The study “supported pretty much everything we assumed,” Gilbertson said. “It reinforced that housing is needed at every level.”

Although policy discussions often are focused on affordable housing, there’s also a local shortage of higher-end housing for well-paid professionals such as engineers, who may opt not to move to Kandiyohi County if they cannot find suitable housing, he said.

The ability of local employers to maintain their workforce hinges in part on housing availability, he said. “They’d love to hire workers but they can’t find housing.”

The information contained in the housing study will be key to enticing developers and applying for grants to meet the county’s housing needs, Gilbertson said. “Now is kind of the ‘go’ time.”

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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