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Moving forward on local housing

WORTHINGTON -- Having a lack of housing has been an issue for the city of Worthington for a long time.

The common question raised among those in the community is this: How can the problem be fixed?

"I think if we knew the answer, we'd be out of the situation," said Darlene Macklin, Executive Director of the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce. "We're just trying to work together to come together to see what we can do about housing. I wish we had that magic answer, but we don't."

One thing is certain -- something has to change.

"Something needs to be done," said Zach Dingmann, a teacher at Prairie Elementary. "There needs to be some kind of fix. Obviously, we're growing; it's a fast-growing town. More people are going to be moving in, and it's a good thing to have people moving into town. You just have to make sure you can accommodate all of them."

The problem isn't a new one for the community.

"When I first accepted the position, I spent three weeks trying to find a place," said Brad Chapulis, Director of Community and Economic Development, who moved to Worthington 14 years ago. "I would come on Thursdays and spend the weekend here at a hotel while trying to find a place to live. It came to a point where I was considering not accepting the position. Ultimately, I ended up finding a place that wouldn't have been available for three weeks until after my job started. I ultimately got the tenant who was moving out to agree to leave early."

College housing

As Minnesota West brings students in each year, finding housing for them has become more and more difficult.

"I wouldn't call it an issue," said Richard Shrubb, President of Minnesota West. "I don't think that's the right word. It's a project, and we want housing because the little towns all over our service district have a lack of short-term housing and that's what students need. If we can provide housing for people for just a couple of years who maybe still live in our district, but don't want to commute back and forth to Worthington, then they are not going to move permanently into a house."

For second-year student Mitch Olson, housing is a big concern, specifically the condition of his room at a nearby apartment complex.

"Some of the doors are missing on the closets," he said. "There was one last year in our bathroom where the toilet would work sometimes and sometimes it wouldn't. The door would lock and sometimes they wouldn't lock. It just depended on the day. It was a hassle to deal with all that stuff all the time."

To combat the housing needs, the college is investigating the feasibility of building student-specific housing.

"We have a separate constituency because college residency is always a little bit unique," Shrubb said. "Just having new management on an existing series of apartments would not create more apartments. We've been resistant all along to suggesting that we buy housing in town because what we really feel like we need to do is add additional housing by building more."

Olson, who spent time at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge, Iowa -- where there was campus housing -- is in favor of building.

"I think it would be great. When I went to my first year down to Iowa Central, they had just built brand-new dorms," Olson said. "Those things were just so nice, it really helped bring in students and student-athletes. I think Minnesota West should do it."

He knows it's too late for him to enjoy new housing, but Olson hopes others don't have to have the same problems.

"Just so kids don't have to go through what I've had to go through and what other kids had to go through," he said. "It's just a hassle. The college loses so many student-athletes because they don't want to live there. They want to go to a college that has dorms or had nicer apartments. I think if you had better apartments or dorms, I think we'd get a lot more student-athletes, and not just student-athletes, but more students."

New projects

under consideration

Because of the need, there are projects currently in the works.

With the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership and the Housing and Redevelopment Authority, a proposed 36-unit development has been discussed.

The proposed rent would be somewhere in the $800 range and up.

"Do we have people who can afford this and are they willing to afford this?" asked Rosie Rogers, Executive Director of the HRA. "That's one of the concerns.

"I think there is always going to be a need for housing. The type of housing is going to be up to our community. A lot of it in the market analysis will tell us, do we have a Cadillac appetite and a Chevrolet pocketbook? Or are we where we should be?"

One of the biggest needs that keeps coming up is the moderate-income housing.

Jenny Anderson-Martinez, Human Resources Director at JBS, said that's the biggest need for its workers.

"Our employees kind of struggle, because the common misconception out there might be that JBS employees are using up all the low-income housing, and that's not the case," she said. "Our employees actually are making -- I just pulled the average -- our average hourly employee at JBS is making almost $50,000 a year, with all of their overtime. They can't qualify for that housing unless they have a half a dozen kids and the spouse is not working. With the workforce housing, people are caught in the middle."

JBS has educated -- and encouraged -- its employees to look into home ownership.

"The one thing we've been doing here at JBS, which started because of the housing shortage, was really educating our employees on the benefits of home ownership," Andersen-Martinez said. "I think that's really paid off. We've seen a lot of our employees purchase homes. The Karen population, for example, they've only been in Worthington four or five years and we have 45 families who bought homes in Worthington in the last four or five years. More would buy if there were more available."

Those issues are being addressed, as well.

According to Chapulis, there were 10 new single-family homes being built in Worthington this year.

"Just in general, too, there are some brighter spots as far as housing in concerned," said Worthington City Administrator Craig Clark. "We continue to see some modest amount of homes built, but the biggest area we've continued to see a transformation are those kind of $100,000 price-range homes."

Commissioner of Housing to visit today

With avenues already being explored, another resource the community is looking toward is the state.

Today, the Commissioner of Housing will visit Worthington. The public meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m. at the meeting room in the fire station.

"We are very encouraged the commissioner would come down here," Clark said. "Gov. (Mark) Dayton, when he was down, we shared that issue with him and he was very responsive to it. So we appreciate the governor listening to us, taking action and bringing the commissioner down here."

Chapulis is hoping to get the needs of the community across at today's meeting.

"What we hope out of the commissioner's trip is to understand housing needs are not just to low- to moderate income," he said. "There are housing issues just above that. We need to try to find a solution, and we hope they sit at the table and help us find that solution."

'It has to be a collaboration of multiple groups'

There may not be one single answer to the problem.

Anderson-Martinez said it would take the entire community.

"I think it has to be a collaboration of multiple groups. I think it's going to take more than one employer to get together to weigh in on this problem," she said. "JBS is willing to be a player, but we shouldn't be the only player at the table. We need other employers to step up. Again, this is everyone's issue."

JBS has contributed to the last two projects, and committed $50,000 for future projects.

"If you're out there as a business and this has impacted you, don't hesitate to step up to the table and help out with the problems," Andersen-Martinez said. "If we don't all work together, we're not going to get anything done."

Improving the community

Justin Stevenson, who moved to town a year ago, thinks the solution is being able to have better communication between landlords and potential renters.

"As a person moving in from the outside, when a young person moves in they don't have access to this underground network of people that know about the open places," he said. "The only places I knew about were the ones advertised on the Internet. You get these people who are immigrants and some of them are refugees, they come here and what are they going to say, 'No, I don't want the place'? They have to take the place."

Being able to have better housing will only improve the quality of the community, according to Erick Baumgart, who works for the Worthington Police Department.

"When I moved to Worthington, I was frustrated about housing. I was told, 'You'll come to love us,'" Baumgart said. "As I'm getting more connected into the community, it would be nice to be able to put aside the stress of housing to build my foundation as a citizen here.

"I like Worthington, but I don't have a home here yet. I don't know where I'm going to live in a year. I would like to have that resolved so I can call Worthington my hometown. Since I know I'm not going to stay in my living situation, I'm not unpacking everything. Once I get that done, I could start belonging to the community more."