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Cook County needs more housing: A conversation with HRA Director Jason Hale - Part 1

Aug 23, 2022 11:05AM ● By Content Editor
Photo: Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce

By Rae Wojcik Poynter - Boreal Community Media - August 23, 2022

Editor's note: This is the first part of a three-part exclusive series on the housing crisis in Cook County and Grand Portage, Minnesota. You can find part two here, and part three here

Across the nation, stagnating wages and the rising cost of living have led to uncertainty for many households. One of the most dramatic contributors to the higher cost of living is housing, with both rental and real estate asking prices rising a whopping 30-40% nationwide since the start of 2020, and the national median rent surpassing $2000 for the first time this year. 

And while families across the nation are feeling the effects of the ever-inflating housing costs, some of the communities that feel this the most are rural “destination” areas such as Cook County and Grand Portage. A recent article by the Minnesota Reformer named Cook County as one of the most expensive places to buy a home in Minnesota, with the median home price typically over four times the median household income. And as Boreal reported in an article last fall, 2021 saw an 85% increase in 2021 property sales over 2020. Additionally, an assessment done by the Cook County Assessor’s Office had shown there were only three homes for sale at that time that were priced below $300,000, none of which had running water. 

A host of factors contribute to the lack of affordable housing in Cook County, and while the problem was exacerbated by the aftereffects of the Covid-19 pandemic—including trends toward rural living and remote working—the problem is certainly not new. But while the lack of housing in Cook County is a longstanding and multifaceted issue, that doesn’t mean the issue can’t be solved. 

Jason Hale started as the Executive Director of the Cook County Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) on April 25, 2022, an organization specifically formed to address the lack of affordable housing in Cook County. Hale previously worked for the Duluth HRA. 

“My first couple of months have been great, thanks to the community support,” Hale said. “I haven’t sensed that anyone here thinks housing isn’t an issue, and people are pretty open to exploring what our opportunities are. It’s apparent that whatever we’ve been doing so far hasn’t worked, so we need to pivot to find real solutions.” 

‘We need to build our way out of this’ 

An NPR article published in June 2022 cites a decrease in homebuilding after the 2008 housing market crash as the main reason that housing is so expensive nationwide. A decade of not building enough new housing means that today, there simply aren’t enough houses for the population. A lack of houses is certainly the reality in Cook County. According to Jason Hale, there are only two options to solve the housing crisis in Cook County: we either need to decrease the demand for housing in Cook County, or we need to increase the supply of it. The latter, Hale said, is really the only option. 

“We don’t want to decrease the demand because we need workers to move and work here,” he said. “We need to build our way out of this.”

Building our way out of the housing crisis is, of course, not easy—if it were easy to build lots of new housing to meet demand in Cook County, one could suspect that it would have been done already. As many community members know, Cook County has several unique factors that make it particularly hard to build here. Only 9% of land in Cook County is privately owned to begin with, and the high costs of developing said land means that much of the privately owned land in the county is undeveloped.

Being situated at the tip of the Arrowhead means that overall costs of building materials are more expensive, and the rural nature of Cook County means that most new builds need a driveway, well, and septic system installed, all of which can add up to tens of thousands of dollars in costs before work on the actual structure even begins. To top that all off, Cook County has one of the shortest building seasons in the country, and the lack of housing for working families contributes to an overall labor shortage, including a shortage of contractors who might be available to build new housing. 

As there is no single cause making it difficult to build new housing in Cook County, there is no single, easy solution. But while the issue may be longstanding and complex, Hale said that it’s not one that Cook County residents need to be resigned to. 

“I wouldn’t be here if I thought this problem couldn’t be solved,” Hale said. 

We need more housing for hospitality workers 

Cook County’s largest sector of the economy is tourism, by a wide margin. Hale said it’s one thing to know this fact, but quite another to look at it closely and see how it affects the housing and job markets. He said that when looking at the need for housing, two groups of workers with similar but disparate needs come to mind: workers in the hospitality industry—including temporary workers such as J1 visa holders—and long-term residents who work outside of the hospitality industry. 

 In an economy dominated by tourism, hospitality workers are essential to meet the demands of the estimated one million people who visit Cook County and Grand Portage every year. But jobs in the tourism industry are typically low-paying, and with the demand for second homes, homes for wealthier retirees, and short-term rentals—in addition to all the previously mentioned factors that make building housing here difficult—these very workers struggle to live in the place that so desperately needs their labor. 

“This is a community rich in natural resources, and those amazing natural resources are the reason many of us live here,” Hale said. “But you can’t enjoy those natural resources without the infrastructure, workers, and money needed to support that. And what happens when we can’t provide housing for people to live and work here so we can enjoy the things people love about living here? Whether it’s our natural resources or amenities like the Art Colony, the North House Folk School, the ski hill, or any of the businesses we need…what happens when we can’t support those amenities with the staff we need anymore? If we can’t provide housing for the folks who do those jobs, those things we love about the community are going to go away.”

Traditionally, the way that resorts in Cook County have addressed the need for a crew of seasonal workers is to provide their own staff housing. But Hale said it has been eye-opening to see the extent to which local businesses, including smaller businesses and those outside of the hospitality industry, are attempting to do the same thing. 

“I’ve met with several small business owners who have said that they needed to buy housing or do long-term leases for people as soon as something came on the market,” Hale said. “Even if it was sitting empty, they would pay the lease just to have it in case they could find an employee who wanted to take the job. Businesses are just doing what they think they can to provide housing for their employees.”

Although providing employee housing has worked for some businesses, it can’t be the solution to Cook County’s housing crisis. While temporary workers such as college students or J1 visa holders may be okay with, for example, sleeping in a bunk bed in shared employee housing, such situations are not practical for the many workers who may want to put down roots in the county. Workers with families or pets need their own private living spaces. Living in employee housing can also create situations where a worker may not feel they can leave a job or seek new employment opportunities if quitting their job means losing their housing too. Not only that, but many small business owners don’t want the extra task of becoming a landlord in addition to running their business. 

To address this, Hale said that he’s started to work on a housing project in Lutsen specifically designed with longer-term hospitality workers in mind. He’s working with a developer to design a space with smaller, studio-sized apartments that would be pet-friendly and give new residents a comfortable and independent place to land when they arrive in Cook County. 

“If we have people that are interested in investing in our community and staying here long-term, we need a place for them to land that isn’t a bad experience,” Hale said. “We want to provide something that, while it may not be somewhere to settle down long-term, will be that place for people to get on their feet and have a stable place to live as they become part of the community.”  

Part two: Cook County needs more housing part 2: the short term rental vs long term rental debate
Part three: Cook County needs more housing part 3: How do we build more housing?
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