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Housing commissioner talks options

Brian Korthals/Daily Globe Commissioner Mary Tingerthal speaks during a housing conference Wednesday afternoon at the fire hall in Worthington.

WORTHINGTON -- In a public forum Wednesday, Minnesota Housing Commissioner Mary Tingerthal said the local housing problem can't be solved all at once.

"If you try to solve the whole thing in one gulp, everybody will get overwhelmed, and you'll be back here in another year," she said following a two-and-a-half hour meeting. "But if you take it in bite-sized chunks, it sounded to me there was a lot of commitment in the room."

With a room full of more than 30 community members, Brad Chapulis, director of community and economic development for Worthington, gave background information to those in attendance.

He said Worthington was one of the few communities in the state to see growth during the past two decades.

"With that, the housing needs have continued to grow," Chapulis said.

And while housing is a key issue in town, Tingerthal said it can be a positive as well.

"I think really just turning it around and saying let's look at it as an opportunity," she said. "I thought some of the things we talked about at the very end were maybe you do this project where the city has to step up and do these essential function bonds, but you think about it as turning it over to the private sector 10 years from now. That can begin to boost the confidence of private owners. I really like that idea a lot."

The local housing problems have festered for years, with small progress being made each year.

"It was 2004 that we started to see the market tighten and vacancy rates drop," said Lisa Graphenteen, chief operating officer of the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership. "Pretty much what they've done since then is gone to zero. It was really hitting across all types of housing in the community."

Graphenteen referenced a housing study done in 2009, which called for 186 to 210 new units to be constructed.

"We have not even met half the need that was recommended in that housing study," she said. "We are still at zero percent even with the additions that have been made in the housing market."

Chapulis estimated 92 multifamily units have been constructed since 2009, which have been primarily income restricted and senior housing, but no market rate housing was added.

Tingerthal talked about housing programs available, including homeownership and fix-up fund loan programs.

"For older housing in Worthington, there is a pretty attractive installment program that allows people in their homes to fix up their homes," she said.

The floor was opened up for questions and comments from the attendees.

"We have to be able to attack this deficit at some point," said JBS Human Resources Director Jenny Andersen-Martinez. "All we're ever doing is keeping up with the growth."

"It seems like we can never get on top of the program," said Worthington City Councilman Lyle Ten Haken. "While we have a pretty diverse community, we push people into homeownership that aren't accustomed to homeownership.

"Our challenges are to get those rental units and get people used to living in a facility, especially if they're moving in from another country. It's an education process that takes a bit to get though. I think we need to work on the rental side of the fence."

Council member Mike Kuhle brought up the issue of college housing.

"We are working with MnSCU and we see a need as well," said Amber Luinenburg, coordinator of communications, marketing and advertising at Minnesota West Community and Technical College. "A lot of students are not coming to this community to go to college because of lack of housing."

That was one issue with which Tingerthal wasn't as familiar.

"Interestingly, the thing I didn't know about was the impact of the educational institution," she said. "I don't really know very much about MnSCU policy as it regards to student housing. That made me want to go back and learn a little bit more, because it sounded like that's really part of the dilemma."

Rosie Rogers, executive director of the Housing and Redevelopment Authority, said she has been in on meetings like this before.

"I would hope we can get serious about the point," Rogers said. "We need to see what we can do to make the changes if we truly want them. We're not going to do it alone. If you're going to buy into the need, we need to buy into the ownership and how we're going to resolve it."

That call to action made an impact with Tingerthal.

"I think there was a new call to action, especially by the outgoing head of your HRA," Tingerthal said. "I had a lot of people as they were leaving the room tell me that they really learned something today, and really learned where they might need to step up.

"I think the fact that we have a recovering economy generally is helpful. I would just encourage the community to come together very soon and really develop an action plan and say these are the five things we are going to do and here's who's going to take the lead on each of the five things and then hold yourselves accountable."

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Coordinator Aaron Hagen may be reached at 376-7323.