'Affordability gap' is also a major theme of discussion.

    If you make a little too much money to qualify for certain housing programs, incentives or other forms of housing-related support, or you don’t make quite enough money to be eligible for those things, the primary take-aways from a housing “listening session” in Crookston this week might give you some hope.

    The session was hosted by U.S. Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) during her weeklong visit to Crookston and several other communities in the region. It took place at Valley Technology Park and attracted a roomful of leaders and housing advocates and stakeholders from Crookston and cities and agencies from across the region.

    What Smith heard about more than anything were a demographic or socioeconomic population of people known as “bubble people,” or those who either make a little too much or not quite enough to qualify for various housing-relating programs that would likely improve their housing situation dramatically, whether they rent or own.

    Smith, who serves on the Senate’s Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, left the session with a fairly significant list of issues and concerns to follow-up on.

    “I will find a way to follow up and report back to everyone here,” she said. “The issues I’m hearing here are similar to what I’m hearing in other communities; there are a lot of concerns about income limits and (overburdensome) housing-related regulations” in Minnesota.

    Even when she was Minnesota’s lieutenant governor, before she was appointed to finish the Senate term of Al Franken and subsequently was elected to a full term, Smith said she was very aware of housing-related stress and uncertainty for many Minnesotans.

    “Particularly in rural Minnesota, there seems to be a mismatch between what people can afford and what’s being built,” she said. That mismatch leads to housing instability for too many people, she continued. “If you don’t have a safe place to call home, nothing else in your life works, whether it’s your job, your family, or whatever,” Smith added.

    Flood mitigation efforts in Crookston and other Minnesota communities have on the plus side resulted in many more neighborhoods and cities protected from high water, CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth noted. But on the downside, as a result of all those flood control projects, a lot of smaller, older and more affordable homes have been removed.

    With prices for lots, construction, materials and infrastructure seemingly on a constant upward trajectory, often at a dramatic rate that far outpaces increases in household income, Hoiseth said it’s virtually impossible to build a new home for less than $200,000. Even the Homark modular home built on Crookston’s south end this year, which was envisioned with affordability in mind, is for sale for $193,000.

    “That’s not affordable housing,” said Jeff Fagerstrom of the Northwest Minnesota Housing Cooperative, which has built and continues to build several homes in Crookston.

    “A working family in Crookston, maybe they can afford to be in a $170,000 house, at the most,” Ward 5 Crookston City Council Member Dale Stainbrook added. “But it needs new windows, doors, a new roof, siding, HVAC…and they don’t have the money to do that.”

    On the rental housing front, Hoiseth said Crookston leaders have been pretty aggressive of late, tackling a variety of pressing housing needs identified in a recent comprehensive study of the community’s housing options.

    “We say, ‘Oh, we need new housing,’ but what does that mean?” he said. “Our landlords might say, with the new apartments we’ve added, ‘Now we’re not 100% occupied anymore.’ Well, they have to shift with us.”

    Along with hearing the plight of “bubble people” when it comes to trying to secure quality housing, Smith will go back to the Senate with the phrases “value gap”  and “affordability gap” echoing in her mind. Both are defined as the gap between people’s incomes and the cost of home construction. And in towns smaller than Crookston, Fagerstrom noted, there’s an “appraisal gap” as well, due to a new home in a smaller town not being appraised as high as it would be if it were located in a bigger town, like Crookston, Thief River Falls or East Grand Forks. “It’s tough for a young family to cover that,” Fagerstrom said. “That is money out of their pocket.”

    Between similar Northwest Minnesota Housing Cooperative projects, one in 2007 and another in 2017, Fagerstrom continued, the costs related to the project tripled. “Certainly our incomes didn’t triple over that time,” he said.

    Thirty to fifty years ago, Hoiseth told Smith, the federal government was “very aggressive” when it came to providing a variety of housing, including public housing ventures such as Oak Court in Crookston. “But (the federal government) has continually backed off in the decades and years since,” he added. “So these bubble people we’re hearing about, their options are fewer. They just can’t get on their feet and it’s not necessarily their fault.”

    Tri-Valley Opportunity Council CEO Jason Carlson said a “lot of working folks” are living in the local homeless shelter. “That’s a transitional housing shortage and it results in a homeless shelter that’s not really serving its shelter function,” he said. “You’re housing working people because there’s nowhere else they can afford.”

    Hoiseth wondered if the definition of “homeless” should be broadened to include new and recent college graduates who have to move back in with their parents because, with student loans, they can’t afford their own place, and also to include elderly parents who have to move in with their adult kids because they can’t find or afford senior housing options.    

    People wanting quality housing might need to change their way of thinking a bit. NATALIE SOMEONE, a Thief River Falls City Council member and staff member at the Midwest Minnesota Community Development Corporation, said regulations should maybe be altered to make the minimum home lot size smaller, which would be more affordable. City of Crookston Administrator Shannon Stassen said that local leaders are trying to build homes on existing lots with available infrastructure, known as “in-fill” housing, as much as possible, but not everyone wants that.

    “We want what our parents had, with square footage and the three bedrooms and two bathrooms,” Hoiseth added. “But that kind of house, it’s going to be $200,000 and up.”