WILLMAR - During a housing discussion Monday in Willmar, there was a lot of commonality about the challenges communities face, but what the solutions could be is still up in the air.
"I don't think there is a wrong or right answer here," said Osman Ahmed, the housing policy director for U.S. Sen. Tina Smith.
Smith's office conducted a listening session on housing Monday afternoon at the Willmar Public Library.
Ahmed said the purpose of the meeting was to listen to the concerns and the expertise in Willmar, which could then be used to find positive solutions to the housing crisis.
This was the first listening session conducted by Smith's staff on housing. Smith, in a pre-recorded video, said she wants to hear about the challenges and successes communities have had about housing. She said she'll use the information gathered to try to solve some of the housing issues including affordability.
"We all share the value that when people don't have the solid foundation of a safe, stable place to live, nothing else in their lives works," Smith said in the video message.
Those who attended the Willmar meeting included city and county elected officials and staff, representatives from the United Community Action Agency, landlords, builders and concerned citizens.
One issue that arose again and again during the listening session was regulations, whether it is building regulations that impact home builders or financial regulations in mortgages or rehabilitation funding programs.
One example of a regulation many said needs to be addressed is the Davis-Bacon Act. This legislation, passed in the 1930s, said building construction contracts over $2,000 to which the federal government is a party, including projects funded through the Small Cities grant program, must pay a set minimum wage to various classes of laborers and mechanics employed under the contract.
Several at Monday's meeting said that act is too restrictive for many private landlords, who choose not to take advantage of Small Cities grant money because the Davis-Bacon Act makes it too expensive.
"The federal government hasn't changed that rule since the 1930s," said Jill Bengtson, Kandiyohi County Housing and Redevelopment Authority director. "It is really time, way past time, to raise that limit on those projects."
The rehabilitation of older housing stock was also raised multiple times in the meeting, especially as seniors leave those homes for apartments or senior housing. These older homes could provide affordable housing options for younger families if not for the condition, which can affect if a bank will approve a mortgage or not.
"I'm not sure how to handle that for the young people as we solve the issues for the older folks," Kandiyohi County Commissioner Roger Imdieke said.
Housing studies focusing on the Willmar area completed over the last several years have shown a need for all levels of housing, both rentals and owner-occupied. Kandiyohi County and the City of Willmar Economic Development Commission Director Aaron Backman said the city has thousands of commuters everyday coming to work, many because they cannot find housing in town.
This is a concern for many big employers in town, including Jennie-O Turkey Store for all of its levels of workers and the MinnWest Technology Campus where several businesses employ higher-paid professionals.
"They talk about the need for different housing options for their employees," Backman said.
Other housing concerns raised during the meeting included dependency on government programming; construction costs for new homes; the balance between rental units and homeownership; and homelessness.
Ahmed said that he and the rest of the senator's staff were very appreciative of everything that was shared at the meeting and that in-depth notes were taken and will be shared with Smith.
"The senator is working hard to find solutions for sustainable, affordable and safe housing in communities across the state," Ahmed said. "Yes, there are a lot of challenges. This is the beginning of trying to solve those issues."