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Boreal Community Media

Cook County needs more housing part 3: How do we build more housing?

Aug 25, 2022 08:42AM ● By Content Editor
Photo: Josh Olalde

By Rae Wojcik Poynter - Boreal Community Media - August 25, 2022

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

While multi-family apartment buildings are the fastest way to add new units of housing, Hale said that he recognizes that, especially in a more rural setting, people don’t want to rent forever and want to be able to move into their own homes. Several projects such as One Roof Community Housing and Hamilton Habitat have worked to address the need for affordable homes to buy, but Cook County still needs more. One factor that contributes to higher costs of homeownership in the county is the issue of zoning, and the fact that many areas of the county have minimum lot sizes of at least several acres. More land means paying more for a house, whether you want to utilize all that land or not.

It’s a balance, of course; one of the reasons people are drawn to living in Cook County is the remote nature of the area and the feeling of being surrounded by woods, rather than surrounded by people. Hale said that it’s important to stay true to the character of Cook County as a rural area and to protect our natural resources. But new, denser housing—whether that’s in the form of apartment buildings or single-family housing developments—is essential if Cook County is to have a future where people can live, work, and raise families here. 

One idea that Hale has is to change the way that housing developments are planned out. Currently, if a swath of land were portioned into five-acre parcels to meet the minimum zoning requirement, this would look like a series of adjoining “squares” of five acres that would each be sold to a separate owner. These owners would then install their own driveway, well, and septic system on their five-acre parcel. Alternatively, you could structure the development so the houses are closer to each other and share some of the amenities that make building so expensive.

“Let’s say you have a 40-acre parcel and you’re building eight houses. You could structure it so it still works out to be five acres per house, but instead of having the houses spaced out on their separate five acres, you have a five or ten-acre chunk in the front where all eight houses are closer together. You then need less infrastructure—you have fewer trees cut down for roads and driveways, and you could do one big septic system that all the houses share rather than installing eight separate ones,” Hale said. “You start amortizing the costs where the spirit is still true in that you’re not over-developing the area and creating a huge amount of density where it’s not appropriate, but it’s more cost-effective and more environmentally friendly because all of the building is concentrated into one place and the rest of the land remains wild.”

How do we build more housing?

The need for more housing in Cook County is apparent. But as mentioned previously, the housing shortage has led to a labor shortage, including a shortage of contractors to build houses. So if we need to build houses and apartment buildings, who is going to build them, and when?

As the projects are still in development, certain details such as the names of the developers can’t be shared with the public at this time. However, Hale said that the hope is to finish the planning and pre-development over the winter so that construction on the first projects can start in 2023.

While Hale wants to work to create more opportunities for skilled laborers to move to and work in the community, the only way to build the housing is to start by bringing in contractors from outside the of the community who can bring the projects that Hale is planning—like the studio apartment complex for hospitality workers and multi-family apartment—to life. Because while there is already a shortage of contractors, the problem may get worse before it gets better.

“We’ve had a couple of new, young people move to the area and start companies, which is fantastic. But we also have several long-running contracting companies in the community where the owners are getting ready to retire and there isn’t a succession plan. If they can’t find someone to take over the operation, they’re going to have to sell the business or close it down,” Hale said.

Hale said that the long-term solution is to create a pipeline of folks who can work in the trades, a system that is challenging but has worked in other communities. However, to bring in new contractors, those contractors need a place to live (like in the apartment complex mentioned above). Once some of that housing is in place, workers such as construction workers and those in the trades could move here, making more future developments able to be completed by local workers.

The need for contractors also extends beyond building new housing. At the end of July, the HRA sent out a survey for rehabilitation and repair needs on properties in the county. One of the reasons for that survey was to get a sense of how many homes in the county are perhaps older or need significant repairs to be comfortably inhabitable. 

“I’ve mentioned that we need to build our way out of the housing problem, but equally important to that is preserving what we already have,” Hale said. “If we continue to lose houses because they fall into disrepair, then we’re moving backward.”

While it won’t be easy to fix Cook County’s housing crisis, the formation of the HRA is the first step to creating the future that our community needs. Though new housing developments and apartment complexes will inevitably bring change, such change is necessary to build a future where Cook County is a thriving and sustainable community of people from all walks of life—a future where businesses can find the workers they need, where finding a place to rent is not a near-impossible task, and where owning a safe and affordable home is not a far-off dream but a reality.

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

Part two: Cook County needs more housing part 2: the short term rental vs long term rental debate

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