No surprise, housing in Barron County is unaffordable.

Ancedotes of months-long HUD housing waiting lists and an at-capacity-housing shelter are now backed by data furnished through a study by the West Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission and Barron County Economic Development Corporation. 

While still being refined, a draft of the Barron County Housing Study was presented before the Board of Supervisors meeting on July 15. 

The study was presented by Lynn Nelson, Chris Straight and Susan Badtke of the WCWRPC and leaned heavily on the U.S. Census, interviews and a workforce survey it conducted throughout the County.

In high demand

Surveying showed that 42% of Barron County renters believe that lack of rental housing was a major issue in their communities.

Although the population of Barron County was 400 people less in 2016 than in 2000, housing demand is up due to aging. 

The average resident’s age in the county was 44 in 2016, up 5 years from 2000, according to the Housing Study.

As people ease into old age, the presenters stated, they become more likely to rent.

The study showed a 30% increase in Barron County seniors by 2030. 

Young people also affect the amount of needed housing. As they enter early adulthood, they are likely to live alone in a rented apartment.

The amount of one-person households increased by 944 in those 16 years, according to the study. 

Current renters also fuel demand. Seventy-five percent told interviewers they would consider moving to the community they work in if housing were available. 

Affordability is #1

But it isn’t all about location, it’s about dollars. The presenters stated that the first thing to catch a renter’s eye is the price tag. 

Wages have not kept pace with rent.

The study found that although the median gross rent increased 59% from 2000 to 2016, the median renter income only increased 36%. 

Three out of four households in the County own their home, and 83% of renters surveyed hoped to join them in the next 5 years. 

But as the gap between rent and earnings stretches, so does that 5 years. Sometimes indefinitely.

Burdened

A “cost burdened” household is one that spends 30% or more of its income on housing costs. 

Rental households have a median income of $29,596 (compared to $49,257 for the whole County), and the 2016 fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $696.

A household with those stats would still be paying about 28% of its income on rent. 

If that 28% sounds like a deal, you aren’t alone— especially if you rent. 

Nearly 39% of renters in Barron County are cost burdened, and the mark including homeowners was 28.1% in 2016, up from 21.5% in 2000. 

High rent or not, people are looking for housing. 

Benjamin’s House in Rice Lake provides up to 90 days of shelter for residents while they find permanent housing, often in a HUD building.

The majority of Benjamin’s House guests do not leave with HUD housing due to long waiting lists and must find an alternative, said Executive Director Lori Bowman. 

She said that of the 11 households currently at the shelter, eight have income streams and two arrived that day and will be looking for work.

Bowman said the shelter operates at 95% capacity due to resident flux and space doesn’t remain unused.

By this point, it seems that housing doesn’t exist in Barron County. But that’s not true, there are vacancies. 

No one’s home

Housing vacancies sound oxymoronic in the realm of unaffordable housing. 

In a County of 5,397 rental units, that means about 150 residences are empty, giving the County a rental vacancy rate of 2-3%, according to the Housing Study. Which at first glance, seems like a solution to capacity shelters and community need.

But the study estimated that as of 2017 an additional 156-190 rental units are needed for a healthy housing market.

Barron County is worse off than the statewide rental vacancy rate of 4.9%, according to an April 2019 survey by the U.S. Census bureau.

The same survey pegged the national average at 7%.

Low vacancy is undesirable, but so is high vacancy.

Thomas Kemp, professor and department chair of economics at UW Eau Claire said that while healthy is a subjective term, a rental vacancy rate in the upper single digits is good. 

This would put the County at least four percentage points—or about 180 housing units—away from a robust rental market.

Home ownership vacancy in the County is at 1.7%. Kemp said a vacancy rate of 3-4%, while not popular with owners, would benefit the community.

Kemp said that vacancy is good because it allows for growth and flexibility.

He gave the example of a business wanting to move into the area. Along with new jobs, it would  bring its own people. 

If there is nowhere for these people to live, the community doesn’t look like as desirable.

The forums

Dave Armstrong believes if it’s built, they will come.

Armstrong is the executive director of the Barron County Economic Development Corporation. During the Housing Study presentation, he told the audience that there are about 600 open jobs in the County.

Rental units aren’t the only units being planned.

The median sale price for a home in Barron County has eclipsed the 2007 pre-recession mark of $132,950 and in 2018 the median was $157,500.

That’s an increase of 81% since 2000, according to the housing study.

Armstrong said people are looking to spend $90,000-150,000 on a home in the County.

Barron County has opportunities, but it needs to convince developers to take a chance. 

Communities will get a chance to hear specifics and give feedback during six housing forums scheduled in July and August. These cities and villages helped the County fund 50% of the Housing Study. 

The other 50% was paid for through a HUD Community Development Block Grant.

Rice Lake’s forum is scheduled for Aug. 12 at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall.

(Copyright © 2019 APG Media)

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