Several local employers say their workers live in other communities due to the high cost of living in Decorah, according to Winneshiek County Development Inc. (WCDI) Director Randy Uhl.

In January, Uhl said the WCDI Board set improving housing availability in Decorah as one of its top priorities.

"We all know there is a shortage of housing here," he said.

A "Housing Team" consisting of WCDI Board members as well as city officials and others interested in housing issues has been meeting regularly since February to discuss ways to provide affordable housing in the city. During the Decorah City Council's meeting last week, Uhl gave an update on their progress.

"We plan to keep meeting on a monthly basis ... we're getting good input," Uhl said.

Having an Omaha, Neb. firm complete a community housing assessment team (CHAT) evaluation has been talked about, but it costs $7,500 and Uhl said the housing study group hasn't been convinced it is necessary. Black Hills Energy has offered to cover about $3,000 of the expense, Uhl said.

"We're looking at other things we could do locally first," he said.

John Lubke, the county's global information system director, recently mapped and compiled a spread sheet of the homes in Decorah, identifying those under $100,000, under $75,000 and under $50,000, Uhl reported. It also helped identify potential building sites within the city.

The housing group also has been researching tools to assist in building affordable housing, such as tax abatement and tax credits, Uhl told the Council.

Uhl said some of the city's largest employers were informally surveyed recently on housing.

"We had pretty good responses," he said.

Some employers said potential employees are often surprised at how expensive housing is in Decorah, and one said a worker had to rent a home in Fayette County.

Employers also commented commuting can impact work efficiency, especially during winter months, Uhl said.

Employers also told Uhl employees who don't live in the community are less likely to become involved in community events.

However, employers surveyed said some employees wouldn't move to Decorah if there were more affordable housing because they have a spouse who farms or works in another community.

Uhl said the the Housing Team would be deciding soon on whether to pursue a CHAT assessment. He said Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission has been contacted to see whether it could provide something similar but scaled down to Decorah's specific needs.

"We'll also be looking at zoning possibilities. Many lots that are available have irregular shapes and may need a zoning change," he said.

Council member Rachel Vagts asked Uhl how affordable housing is being defined. He said that question has brought mixed responses.

He said housing officials at Northeast Iowa Community Action and Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission maintain mortage or rent payments should be 30 percent or less of household income. He said survey responses indicated an estimated 25 percent of Winneshiek County residents pay more than the recommended 30 percent.

"I'm glad you're doing this study ... whether you purchase one or do one on your own. It (affordable housing) seems a bit of a constraint on our economic growth potential," said Council member Carolyn Corbin.

"We should see what areas we have for growth or opportunities we could give to developers to spur growth. I'm also interested in potential for subdivisions on the outer limits of Decorah," she said.