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Wisconsin’s rural manufacturers don’t have enough affordable and current housing. Here’s how a new bill aims to change that.

MARINETTE – Rural manufacturers’ ability to attract and retain workers is hindered by a lack of affordable and current housing. A bill up for vote in the Wisconsin Assembly aims to alleviate this housing gap.

The housing challenge in rural Wisconsin is steep. In the city of Marinette for example, more than one in three housing units were built in 1939 or earlier, according to a 2017-2018 housing study by Bay-Lake Regional Planning Commission. Only 4% of the city’s housing was built in 2000 or later.

Shipping titan Fincantieri Marinette Marine employs nearly 1,400 people and over 500 contract workers, wrote Marinette’s mayor Steve Genisot in an October 2019 letter to Rep. John Nygren, and some employees find “affordable housing is either unavailable or with a common problem of a one hour commute time.”

Genisot’s letter was in support of Nygren’s AB-544, which is currently in the hands of the Wisconsin Assembly and would allocate a $10 million fund for rural workforce housing.

The bill will allow the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority to work with three rural communities to problem-solve and implement solutions to housing challenges unique to their communities. In addition to this pilot program, WHEDA would allocate funds to support rural workforce housing, including a loan pool for rural housing tax credit projects.

“We are lacking modern housing in rural areas of the state that young workers and families are looking for,” said Rep. John Nygren, a Marinette Republican and an author of the bill. “In part, this is because it is even harder for new and rehabilitated housing builders to financially justify new housing projects in these areas.”

Roberta Davis works at inVenture North, a nonprofit for economic development in Marinette and Menominee County. She regards the $10 million as a step in the right direction for workforce housing in the community.

“While it doesn’t cover all of our needs, I think it’s going to shed a lot of light on the housing need in northeast Wisconsin, specifically Marinette County,” Davis said.

While most people who work in Marinette County also live there, according to the 2017-2018 housing study, a significant number live in the Upper Peninsula (3,866 in Menominee County and 548 in Dickinson County.) Other folks are making a 40-minute to 1-hour commute from Oconto (875 commuters) and Brown (222 commuters) counties.

“We are really excited that Rep. Nygren is going to bat for the rural communities,” Davis said. “A lot of times we see some of these efforts going to the bigger cities, and oftentimes the rural communities are left behind.”

Door County is another community affected by the housing shortage, and Rep. Joel Kitchens, a Republican from Sturgeon Bay, is one of the co-authors for the bill.

Todd Thayse, a vice president and general manager at Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay, hears from prospective and current employees there’s not enough affordable housing near their shipyard. (Bay Shipbuilding is an associate company of Marinette Marine.)

“The housing shortage affects the labor pool for our steady, and at times, surging business growth,” Thayse said.

February 2019 Door County housing analysis determined there’s an immediate need for 330 housing units and a future need through 2023 of another 45. Northern Door is short 140 units, with a future need of 65 in Sturgeon Bay.

Communities who apply to be part of the problem-solving program will be evaluated with a scoring criteria that hasn’t been approved by committee yet. The bill indicates the community would have to demonstrate need — such as through a housing study — for workforce housing.

“To WHEDA’s knowledge, the rural affordable workforce housing pilot is the first of its kind,” said WHEDA public affairs program manager Jennifer Sereno.

WHEDA CEO Joaquín Altoro said WHEDA heard the need for better rural housing in a series of listening sessions statewide. Rising construction costs, limited interest from developers due to the smaller scale of rural housing projects, older housing and few affordable rental options are just some of the challenges.

Jim Schuessler has observed this in Door County as executive director of Door County Economic Development Corporation.

“The cost of construction has escalated and made it difficult to develop affordable housing; in fact, it is impossible to develop affordable housing without incentives such as tax credits,” Schuessler said in an email.

Scheussler also said Door County’s infrastructure is a challenge: Along with the high cost of construction, infrastructure like sewer and water are limited within the county.

The need for rural affordable housing is not unique to Wisconsin. About a fourth of the nation’s most rural counties have seen an increase in the number of households spending at least half of their income on housing, the Pew Research Center published in March 2019 from analysis of American Community Survey results.

That same analysis indicates one in 10 households in Door and Marinette county were spending at least half their income on housing in 2017.

Article appears in the Green Bay Gazette, January 15, 2020. Original article can be found by clicking here.

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