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COOK COUNTY CONNECTIONS: A Look at Our County’s Housing Needs

Jun 21, 2021 08:08AM ● By Editor

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By James Joerke, Cook County Administrator of Cook County MN - June 21, 2021

Try to have a conversation about anything in Cook County these days, and it won’t be long before you find yourself talking about housing. It seems to be front-of-mind for everyone: the lack of available housing, record-high real estate prices, the housing cost burden that local workers are experiencing, the conversion of long-term rental housing to short-term vacation rentals and the workforce recruitment challenges that employers face when there is such a small supply of affordable housing. The problem is not a new one; in fact, it has been around for decades. But there is a confluence of events that appears to be making it more acute than it has ever been.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that working remotely can work very well. It has also illustrated a unique liability of living in a densely populated urban area. Cook County is sparsely populated and, thanks to the foresight of local leaders, has better broadband than most places, including many metropolitan areas. This makes our community a hot property. Across the country, people are looking to move to more rural areas like Cook County. They’re buying property, often for more than the asking price, driving up values. With fewer people and homes than most counties, we may be less capable of absorbing and adapting to this change. 

It would be great if we could simply start building more housing, but here too, there are barriers. The costs of building materials have skyrocketed since the start of a pandemic, fueled by a boom in home renovation projects attributed to people spending more time at home. The cost of a two-by-four is now two to three times what it was 18 months ago. There are also fewer young people pursuing skilled trades as a career. This has led to a shortage of contractors not only in Cook County, but across the U.S. General contractors and subcontractors in the county currently have all the work they can handle, and in some instances, have two years of projects lined up.   

Affordable workforce housing is the bedrock of Cook County’s tourism-reliant economy. Most jobs in the county are tied to tourism in some way, and lodges, restaurants and retailers are struggling to find the workers they need. Many businesses have curtailed hours of operation because they don’t have the staff they need to stay open. Out of necessity, some lodges and resorts have built their own workforce housing, but not all employers have the resources to do this. 

There is no single strategy or project that will address all the county’s housing needs, but there is work underway that will help increase the availability of affordable workforce housing. Cook County, the City of Grand Marais, and the Cook County/Grand Marais Economic Development Authority have been working with the Minnesota Housing Partnership to establish a housing and redevelopment authority, or HRA. There are currently over 230 HRAs in Minnesota. These are independent public entities established by and accountable to city and/or county governments, and they administer housing and redevelopment programs. HRAs have levy authority and can access state and federal funds to support housing development. While EDAs can work on housing in addition to economic development, an HRA’s sole focus is housing. Examples of HRA programs include down payment assistance and home rehabilitation loans and grants, the operation and management of housing developments and rental assistance programs. 

Cook County has received over $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding. One of the eligible uses of the funding is expansion of infrastructure like water and sewer lines. This presents a unique opportunity for Cook County and its partners to develop workforce housing in areas that may currently lack these utilities. It will be important to consider a range of housing solutions, including single-family and multi-family homes, and owner-occupied and rental properties.

The Cook County Board of Commissioners is considering an update of its economic development tax abatement policy. As unexciting as it may sound, tax abatements can be a powerful tool to encourage development that provides public benefits. The updated policy would prioritize developments that include housing for people who live and work in Cook County. To the extent that public resources are used to support such development, there will need to be covenants or other mechanisms to ensure that properties developed to provide workforce housing continue to serve that function indefinitely. 

If you have thoughts about housing needs in Cook County, I invite you to email me at [email protected] or call my direct line at 218-387-3687. 

County Connections is a column on timely topics and service information from your Cook County government. Cook County – Supporting Community Through Quality Public Service

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