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Affordable housing in short supply

Moving to Red Wing and finding an affordable home has proven to be a daunting task for young renters.

Those categorized in Generation Y looking to rent or buy a new home are challenged when looking for their first place to live by the haunting truth: it's just not affordable. Finding an apartment or multi-family home to rent, especially in a rural area, is a lengthy and expensive process. Add the financial problems young adults face, such as staggering student debt around $30,000 or more with Minnesota college graduates ranking fifth-highest in the state, car loans and other burdens hovering over their head, and it's a recipe for disaster.

"We just don't have affordable workforce housing," Red Wing Mayor Sean Dowse said after telling the story of a couple he recently spoke with. The two found it near-impossible to buy an affordable home in the city, much less one under $300,000.

"It's kind of a catch-22," Dowse said. "These problems exist, but how do we know where to begin?"

And that's just it: where do we begin? How long have these housing problems been known to exist and to what extent can those who fall victim to it help find a solution?

Dowse mentioned underlying issues, such as the cost of building going up. It's not cheap for contractors to build new apartments for local residents. Monthly rent would skyrocket in these buildings to $1,500 per month or more, which is even more troubling. Outside investors would rather build in the metro area where there are more workers, especially those who make higher wages that can afford these costs. Ultimately, funds have been limited from a state and federal level for rural areas.

"We haven't built any new market-rate housing in Red Wing in 25 years," said Randal Hemmerlin, executive director of Red Wing Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

Affordable housing projects have been attempted in the past, but funds were never able to keep up with the costs. Two current market-rate housing projects in Red Wing are in the works with hopes to create vacancies, according to Hemmerlin. One building will be located near Wal-Mart, the other south of Mayo Clinic Health System.

To put it in perspective, someone making minimum wage in Minnesota ($7.75 an hour) would have to work 80-plus-hour weeks in order to afford the average one-bedroom apartment, costing around $700 a month, not including additional utility bills. A reasonable benchmark for housing should reflect no more than 30 percent of a person's income, studies say.

Some workers are forced to move outside of the city, sometimes as far as Rochester or the metro area to find reasonable housing.

"I think people are OK driving an hour or so to Red Wing for work," said Kelsey Vandeusen, a laboratory and wastewater treatment technician in Red Wing. When looking for housing, Vandeusen was forced to move back home with her family for nine months with her children before being able to find a place to reside.

"You're almost forced to find roommates," Hemmerlin said. "But millennials have a different attitude about home ownership. You have to have stable employment and your debts under control. There's a pattern here."

The stress renters have dealt with when moving to Red Wing has caused some of them to look elsewhere for homes and jobs. It's a slippery slope for not only renters but employers, too.

"We have Red Wing Shoe, Mayo Clinic, Bic ... this is a very prosperous community. We should remember this and we need to make sure our workers are here." Hemmerlin said about low residential vacancies in the city.

Listening to the community and individual stories of those who have directly dealt with these issues may be a start in the right direction. Dowse has decided to do that, along with others working in the area by proposing "A New Day: Red Wing 2040."

With meetings starting last month, the two-year comprehensive plan for Red Wing that Dowse proposed relies on task forces and action teams for items such as: physical and mental health, public safety, environmental resources, and education. Dowse has noted that his priority in this plan will be housing.

By collecting current data and trends and looking at other communities, those working on the comprehensive plan hope it will lead to identifying the underlying issues with the housing crisis in order to develop an action plan and ideally, a solution.

The process includes listening to the public, hosting events and "outlining the city's long-term vision, goals and broad plans on how to get there." While this project is extensive and will take the course of a few years, it aims to bring attention to a multitude of issues and continue the conversation for Red Wing's decrease in affordable housing.

Kit Murray

Kit Murray joined Red Wing Republican Eagle in Aug. 2016, covering government, transportation and public safety. She is a graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead with a degree in photojournalism and philosophy. 

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