— Since 2018, there have been around 600 housing units developed in Willmar, most of them in multi-unit complexes dotted across the city. While the influx of apartments has been welcome, according to the housing study completed for the
last year, the city will need an additional 1,580 units of various types and costs between now and 2030. Another 950 will be needed outside of Willmar.
“Sources of housing demand stem from several things — household growth, pent up rental demand, capturing a portion of commuters working in Willmar and senior housing needs,” said Aaron Backman, executive director of the EDC, at the Nov. 15 League of Women Voters of the Willmar Area Hot Topics discussion.
To meet that need, local governments, businesses, nonprofits and even regular citizens will have to start thinking differently when it comes to housing and find innovative ways to make development possible and successful.
“We need to do some things that are bold and out of the box,” said Kandiyohi County Commissioner Steve Gardner. “We need more and better ideas than what we are accustomed to. Doing business as usual isn’t going to work for us any more in housing.”
Backman, Gardner and
Director Jill Bengtson were invited by the League of Women Voters to speak about housing challenges in the county — and what is currently being done to help mitigate those issues, in addition to potential solutions.
“This is truly a hot topic,” said Jan Dahl, League of Women Voters member.
One major question is just what kind of housing is required. The answer is all sorts.
The largest need, according to the housing study, is going to be senior housing consisting of independent living, assisted living, memory care and 55-plus rentals. By 2030, Willmar is projected to need another 615 senior housing units of various kinds.
“Forty-one percent of what we need is senior housing,” Backman said. “We better pay attention to that.”
The city and greater Kandiyohi County will also need a mix of single-family and townhomes to purchase, as well as rental units of both the affordable and market-rate variety.
Once you know the kind of the housing you need, the next big step is constructing it.
Over the last few years, Kandiyohi County and Willmar have had some success in enticing, developing and constructing new housing, but the need only continues to grow. There are more projects in the works, Backman said, for both market-rate rental units and senior housing.
There have also been plans that have fallen through due to building costs, financing and interest rates, Backman said.
“I think our track record is pretty good,” Backman said.
Home construction has its own unique challenges too.
The rate of developing and building single-family homes in Kandiyohi County is much lower than it was in the early 2000s, and has never recovered following the housing market crash starting in 2007.
Infrastructure, financing, materials and labor costs are all adding to the increased costs of building homes, whether it is a single family building their dream home or a construction company completing an entire development.
“Everything has gotten too expensive. Wages haven’t kept up with the cost of things,” Bengtson said, adding governments usually have to get involved and subsidize some costs to bring housing development to communities. “That is why we are where we are at.”
Purchasing an existing home has become increasingly difficult as well.
In October 2023, Willmar had 2.5 months of supply of houses for sale. While up from only 1.1 months of supply in October 2022, it is still significantly under the 4 to 6 months of supply Backman would like to see.
Some of the reason behind the lack of housing inventory is there are fewer households moving from one property to another.
“People my age aren’t ready to get out of their house,” said Willmar Mayor Doug Reese, who attended the meeting. “I think a lot of the properties that are going to be utilized by our younger families are being used — lived in — by elderly individuals.”
Housing prices also continue to rise overall. Add in high mortgage interest rates, and many families find it nearly impossible to purchase a home.
“It is becoming harder and harder for families and households to afford buying a home,” Backman said. “That is pricing people out of the market.”
For those in the lower income brackets, there is some assistance around to help afford housing.
The HRA manages rental assistance programs, such as the Housing Choice Voucher Program, better known as Section 8, and the Bridges to Bridges program. The HRA also owns and/or manages several rental properties for those who meet certain income requirements.
There are also down payment assistance programs from organizations such as the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development and Minnesota Housing, which offers a program to help first-time home buyers. But for those caught in the middle, who make more than the income limits allow for assistance but still struggle to afford housing costs, there isn’t much help.
“There is not something for that gap,” Bengtson said. “That is the challenge we are at. Something’s got to change.”
There has been some movement at the state level to solve some of the housing issues.
In 2023, the
and governor approved $1.3 billion in new funding for housing. It will create 15 new programs covering a wide range of issues from building new homes and renovating properties to supportive housing services, rental assistance and home ownership. It will take several years for these new programs and funding to start making a difference though, Bengtson said.
“It will take some time as Minnesota Housing needs to gear up its own capacity to even deliver all these programs,” Bengtson said. “There is going to be a program for everything.”
At the more local level, there are also housing assistance projects in the works.
that can be used for a variety of housing needs.
The county and city should also take a look at their zoning and land use policies to make it easier to build different housing options such as duplexes and triplexes or allow supplemental housing such as granny-flats on single-family lots.
“I think our single-family zoning needs to go away,” Gardner said. “It is too exclusionary, you can’t do enough with it.”
Gardner would also like to see the
for parts of Willmar be expanded citywide. The zone offers a variety of different development incentives. That is an idea supported by Willmar Mayor Doug Reese, who was in the audience at the League of Women Voters event.
Reese also asked whether people would be supportive of the idea of allowing
. While there were some concerns about such a development turning into a rundown trailer park similar to the Elm Lane controversy decades ago, others were more open to the idea.
“We should have all kinds of options,” said Connie Schmoll.
Whatever is done, Gardner wants to see Willmar and the county’s housing options work for all people. He is especially concerned about Willmar’s homeless population, with several living in cars parked in downtown parking lots. Gardner said there are at least 50 students of Willmar Public Schools who are known to be homeless, with possibly more.
“That is a travesty,” Gardner said.
Gardner admits housing is one of those extraordinarily complex issues that will have no easy or cheap answers. However, he feels this crisis needs to be faced together as a community, with creative solutions.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who you are, or where you are from, where you work, live, play or pray, any of that stuff,” Gardner said. “You deserve the opportunity to live a life of meaning in safe, clean, affordable accommodations.”