Results of an extensive Winneshiek County housing assessment indicate a long-term need of about 300 new housing units over the next 10 years and include numerous recommendations on how to reach that number.

The Community Housing Assessment Team, or CHAT, report was presented by housing specialist Marty Shukert of RDG Planning and Design of Omaha to about 40 community leaders gathered at Decorah City Hall Wednesday.

Shukert and RDG were hired by Winneshiek County Development, Inc. after a WCDI Housing Team studied housing issues throughout the county during much of 2013.

The CHAT study provided extensive demographic information that provided a rationale for Shukert's 300-unit recommendation, which called for 70 percent of the 300 to be built in the immediate Decorah area.



Risk vs. reward

Shukert, who has conducted similar CHAT studies throughout the Upper Midwest since the mid-1990s, said there is a strong contradiction between regular investing and investing in building houses to make money. In the stock market, the higher the risk the greater the reward, Shukert said, adding that the opposite is true in house building -- the higher the risk, the lower the reward generally.

Homebuilders shying away from riskier ventures is one part of the problem that creates less-than-desirable housing inventories in counties such as Winneshiek, Shukert said, adding the area is also facing a situation where many of the homebuilders are reaching retirement age and there does not seem to be an adequate number of younger replacements.

Much of the local information for Shukert's report was gathered during four focus-group sessions in Decorah and one in Calmar in early November. Shukert also toured the county over his two-day stay.

"Decorah and Winneshiek County and its smaller cities are highly desirable places to live and work, made so by their unusual combination of economic opportunities, academic and cultural life, beautiful natural environment and great communities," Shukert said in presenting his findings.

But he added that a number of forces limit the area's ability to provide places to live for people who are logically attracted to the region.

"If we can't provide available and affordable housing, other aspects of community life will be affected and we will be unable to attract the new residents who want to live in and contribute to this region," Shukert said.



Housing partnership

Shukert recommended formation of a Winneshiek County public/private housing partnership to meet important community housing needs. Components of the partnership may include:

• A consortium of lenders to provide interim financing and other support to development efforts, and can encourage economies of scale

• A city or countywide non-profit or for-profit development corporation that may be an active developer, or work with private developers or builders

• Involvement of the public sector in the development and financing of infrastructure and development of sites

• Development of a critical mass of moderately priced homes, probably within the context of a larger, more economically diverse development area or redevelopment site

• Market-rate rental or multi-family development

• Purchase and rehabilitation of existing houses

• Innovative approaches to senior housing development that also preserves the existing housing stock

Shukert encouraged Decorah and Winneshiek County to treat residential infrastructure as analogous to industrial park infrastructure and to consider the following public-private financing ideas:

• Revenue bonds with special assessment payback

• Public infrastructure bank with deferred assessment and repayment at house sale

• Public subdivision development with costs recovered at lot or home sale or through assessments or gradual repayments

• Tax increment financing (TIF) or infrastructure bonds, assuming that added taxes will repay the city

The CHAT facilitator also recommended other housing-development tools such as rethinking density issues.

"Small cities are used to spaciousness and low densities," Shukert said. "Yet, this adds significantly to the cost of housing and does not necessarily comply with the preferences of new, younger households. Approximately doubling the gross density decreases the cost of infrastructure per unit by almost half. These changed assumptions can also reduce the housing costs. Older parts of town often reflect higher densities."



Sites focuses

Shukert said Decorah should consider the Trout Run Trail, an 11-mile recreational trail loop around the city, "as a corridor that links new urban housing villages, combining the best attributes of county and community life."

He also said Decorah should work closely with Luther College to develop "excess property" with compact, urban housing communities marketed to faculty, staff and alumni. Other locations suggested for housing developments included the sites of the former Wapsie Produce facility on East Water Street and the county's Smith Building on Montgomery Street.



Calmar sites

In Calmar, sites related to the Prairie Farmer Trail and the center of town "provide good possibilities for innovative development. One of these sites was acquired for industrial development, but residential or even mixed use may be a more strategic land use."

Shukert also said housing preservation programs may work best in the towns of Calmar, Ossian and Fort Atkinson.



Zoning directions

The housing study also indicated that existing zoning ordinances should be reviewed to eliminate or modify provisions that make existing lots nonconforming.

"Zoning issues shouldn't keep you from doing what a community wants to do," Shukert said, adding the following suggestions:

• Solutions include an in-city overlay or a new zoning category that maintains existing use regulations but changes required lot sizes and widths

• Require density or scale gradients immediately adjacent to existing single-family neighborhoods

• Modify rural development regulations in specific areas to address, but still control, the demand for acreage housing

The WCDI Housing Team will continue to meet and will consider many of the CHAT recommendations. Anyone interested in serving on the Housing Team should contact Winneshiek County Development Director Randy Uhl at (563) 382-6061 or wcdi@thinkdecorah.com.