Wadena County leaders often hear stories about a need for housing in the region, but actual numbers showing where the need is or how many are in need seem to be lacking.

Wadena County Commissioners approved using up to $22,500 in funds to pay for a housing study focused on the needs of five cities within the county during their regular meeting Tuesday, Feb. 18. Those cities include Menahga, Sebeka, Wadena, Verndale and the part of Staples in Wadena County.

Bringing forth a recommendation was Katie Heppner on behalf of the county Strategic Planning and Economic Development (SPED) committee. Heppner said that a recent Business Retention and Expansion study in the county brought forth five priority projects, but housing was not one of them. Even so, it was clear that housing was a concern in the communities that were surveyed.

“A significant number of businesses rated their satisfaction with the local housing supply as either very dissatisfied or dissatisfied,” Heppner said.

The SPED group stepped forward looking to assist with that concern.

Heppner promoted the housing study as an important tool to give to developers so they can see the detailed needs of a community and perhaps use it to make good development decisions.

“It can be really difficult to attract developers without really knowing what the need is,” Heppner said. “People throw things out there but there hasn’t been a concrete study done to say, ‘what is the exact need in Wadena County.’”

Heppner used Staples as an example community that had a housing study done and has since had three housing projects completed. Commissioner Jim Hofer, who represents the Staples area, said the housing developments were roughly 100 units.

The cost of a housing study was estimated to cost as much as $30,000. Heppner said a partnership with David Drown Associates and Sourcewell has offered $7,500 towards the project, which leaves at most $22,500 for the county to pick up. Heppner said she would be pursuing further funding sources to help cover the cost.

Commissioner Bill Stearns said the county board was rushed to sell tax forfeited lots in Wadena at a reduced cost as a developer was showing interest in them.

“We did that and that developer didn’t buy them,” Stearns said. The city of Wadena did buy those lots and continues to work to sell them to a developer, Stearns said.

“I have a feeling that if there was a housing study and if they could see that in black and white maybe their board, or whoever makes those decisions, might actually go through with that,” Stearns said.

All commissioners showed support for funding the project using MCIT funds, except for Commissioner Jon Kangas who did not see a housing study as a good use of funds. Instead he pointed to the lack of affordable housing. He added that the county has dropped the prices of tax forfeit lots and they are available for people to buy and build on.

“It’s there, you can build houses,” Kangas said. “It’s the affordability, and I don’t think a study is going to remedy that.”

He did not feel that using taxpayer funds on a study would help make housing more affordable for those looking for it. Stearns pointed out that the funds being used were dividend funds, not from the general fund.

Kangas asked Heppner if the benefiting cities should be the ones helping to pay for this. Heppner responded that if one cannot afford it, it might not be considered fair taking funding from another city or not including a certain city for not paying enough. The SPED committee members recommended that this plan go to the county first.

“I’m willing to kind of prime the pump,” Commissioner Chuck Horsager said. “If it does anything close to what happened in Staples, I think that would be beneficial to virtually everyone.”

Housing a statewide concern

U.S. Senator Tina Smith (D-Minn.) said Tuesday. Feb. 18 that virtually every Minnesota community has a shortage of quality, affordable housing, which not only hurts the health and well-being of families, communities and businesses across the state, but also restrains job creation and economic growth. She released a report of the findings of her recently-completed “Statewide Housing Listening Tour” at an event in Duluth last week.

Senator Smith and her staff met with hundreds of Minnesotans during 21 meetings and listening sessions in communities across the state. They found many barriers to making housing affordable for Minnesotans and to addressing the state’s housing insecurity. The report also highlights some of the successful actions Minnesota communities are taking to address the shortage.

“As I’ve traveled across our big, diverse state, I’ve seen that virtually every community in Minnesota is experiencing a serious housing shortage, Smith said in a news release. “In some communities, it’s a crisis. If you don’t have a safe, stable, affordable place to live, nothing else in your life works. During our listening tour, we heard from hundreds of Minnesotans who told us that without housing, our families’ health and well-being suffers, students can’t succeed in school, and businesses can’t expand. It’s clear, housing is the foundation for healthy families and economic opportunity in our state.”

Between June and January, listening sessions were held in Alexandria, Bemidji, Brooklyn Center, Crookston, Detroit Lakes, Duluth, Faribault, Mankato, Minneapolis, Minnetonka, Moorhead, Rochester, St. Cloud, St. Paul, Thief River Falls, Treasure Island, Virginia, Willmar, Winona, and Worthington.