Session focuses on removing barriers to ‘affordable’ homes


GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPER GROUP SE MN Together brought a panel to Spring Valley on Thursday, Nov. 14, to discuss housing in the region.
By: 
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

Apparently, finding “home, sweet home” isn’t as easy as just clicking one’s heels together in a pair of ruby slippers.  There are barriers such as the housing shortage, lot costs, bank loans and finding the right community to call “home.”

That’s why Southeast Minnesota Together convened in Spring Valley from the morning into early afternoon Thursday, Nov. 14, to sort out what the definition of “affordable” is in relation to housing, how to provide the right kind of housing to meet current workforce needs, ways to increase stability among those who have a home, and more. 

Southeast Minnesota Together is a regional network of organizations and individuals developing and pursuing strategies to address the region’s workforce shortage. The collaborative seeks to strengthen regional connections and build local capacity in communities across the region. Its focus areas include regional transit, workforce housing, resident attraction, community design and welcoming communities. 

Chad Adams, chief executive officer of the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, spoke about the various projects on which he had worked, outlining that affordable housing is defined as “housing for people at risk of homelessness,” not a $500,000 home with two bathrooms and a three-car garage. 

He worked on a project in Willmar that was meant to offer at-risk families a chance to buy two- and three-bedroom homes and establish their roots in a community, thereby increasing their family’s housing stability. His organization helped install six units of permanent supported housing that met its purpose, but that “the lesson learned was that in a more traditional neighborhood, there was a lot of ‘NIMBY,’ or ‘not in my back yard,’ even though we went through and had a meeting with the neighbors beforehand and the project looks very nice – there were a lot of people who did not want ‘those’ people in their back yards,” he said. “We stuck through it and were able to get the project done…I maintained my composure the best I could, did my best, and today, there’s a waiting list of 12 people who want to live there.”

Another project he had a hand in was a 48-unit apartment building with one to three bedrooms. 

“The lesson learned is that when we utilized local artists…we got all the residents together and photographed the building as it was being built, that’s the art on display throughout the entire project,” he said. “It built community, and there are 40 people on a waiting list for that project.  We got an ArtPlace grant of $3 million three years ago to integrate the project into the community through community engagement.”

Mike Paradise, president of Bigelow Homes of Rochester, contributed that it might seem easy to think about purchasing a residential lot and build the home of one’s dreams, but finding lots that are within range of one’s budget is another story altogether in part due to expectations of lower costs. 

He explained that approximately a decade ago, when the housing bubble burst, there were lots purchased by people who intended to build a home but ran out of funds to pay for their lots, leaving the lots to go back to the banks. That provided a stock of nearly half-price building lots for contractors to buy and use for developments, but “if a lot in Rochester costs $60,000 to $70,000, it’s hard to build an affordable home,” he said.

Outside of Rochester, lots tend to be less expensive, between $20,000 and $30,000. 

Paradise pointed out that the number of building permit applications in Rochester has dropped significantly and that the city market upon which Bigelow used to rely has shifted to bedroom towns surrounding Rochester.  He added that while it’s tempting to imagine buying up a tract of lots in a community and building the same kind of house from one end of the block to the other, homes must meet the needs of the people who live in them. 

Furthermore, making available existing housing stock occupied by people whose homes don’t fit their needs and who need to move to a different kind of home is among one of the means of addressing the region’s housing crisis, though he acknowledged that it might take some time for those homeowners to realize that their needs have changed as their families have grown or emptied the nest.    

Cathy Enerson, economic development director representing the cities of Preston and Eyota, related that Preston has recently reexamined its housing philosophy because it was thought that there was nowhere to build.  Her portion of the gathering’s agenda dealt with “how to uncover assets and grow the community” as the city works to prepare for the potential of new residents because the state is giving consideration to the construction of a new state veterans home there.

Other presenters participating in the forum included Olmsted County Commissioner Sheila Kiscaden, SE MN Together Co-Chair Natalie Siderius, Greater Minnesota Housing Fund President and Chief Executive Officer Warren Hanson, Minnesota Housing Director of Planning, Research and Evaluation John Patterson, Prosperity’s Front Door Project Director Judy Johnson, Three Rivers Community Action Community Development officer Susan Strandberg, City of Winona Community Development specialist Nick Larson, Minnesota Housing Assistant Commissioner Policy and Community Development Ryan Baumtrog, Greater Minnesota Housing Fund Director of Lending John Rocker, USDA Rural Development Area Director Chuck Phillips, Red Wing Housing and Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Randal Hemmerlin, Greater Minnesota Housing Fund Program and Loan officer Wes Johnson, Minnesota Housing Partnership Community Development Director Warren Kramer, and Three Rivers Community Action Community Development Director Leah Hall. 

The goals and recommendations of SE MN together include: creating a broader and stronger public commitment to the urgent need for more homes that are affordable to more Minnesotans; preserving existing homes — especially those that are most affordable; building 300,000 new homes by 2030, across all types, prices and locations, to stabilize prices and meet demand; increasing home stability to assist twice as many people at risk of losing their homes because of rent increases, evictions and heavy cost burdens; building stronger links between where people live and the services they may need to live stable lives; creating pathways to sustainable homeownership, with a focus on removing barriers for households of color. 

For more information on SE MN Together, log onto the organization’s website at www.semntogether.org