Ways to meet Decorah's need for affordable housing are being explored by a local business group.

During a recent work session of the Decorah City Council, Winneshiek County Development Inc. (WCDI) Director Randy Uhl said his Board identified housing as a top priority for the city early this year.

"We've been talking about it for quite some time. We've convened stakeholders (interested local citizens and business people) to look at affordable housing issues ... we know we have a severe problem of not having housing for our workers who are driving from other towns," he said.

Uhl reported WCDI's housing task force has begun exploring what other communities are doing to provide housing for their residents. He said Orange City provides tax credits, and the community of Adel has been "very aggressive" with tax abatement.

He said RDG Planning and Design of Omaha, Neb. could provide a housing assessment for about $7,500, and Black Hills Energy could provide about $3,000 for the study. However, Uhl said task force members said they could probably do the study themselves.

Available lots

Uhl said he's been working with Jon Lubke, Winneshiek County Global Information System coordinator, to identify lots available in the city.

"We've always had a problem that we don't have a cornfield on the edge of town we could annex and start to build houses. We don't have that topography," Uhl said.

Instead, Decorah needs to focus on "infilling " (providing housing within city limits), he said.

Council member Paul Wanless asked if the housing group had set a figure on what is "affordable." Uhl said that has not been "narrowed down."

Bird, formerly the Adel city administrator, said in that city, after the residential tax abatement program was made available, larger homes were built, which opened up lower-priced housing opportunities.

"Ultimately, it generated a lot of activity. Twenty-five homes were built in the first year, 30 in the second year and they're on track for 40 homes this year. By offering abatement, they didn't put cash out, they didn't TIF (tax increment finance) anything. All you're really doing is deferring property tax revenue until the abatement ends," Bird explained.

Council member Carolyn Corbin said that sounded liked a "great idea."

By building something new, affordable housing opens up, she said. A condo or senior housing project would make many affordable homes available in the city, Corbin added.

Council member Rachel Vagts commented that in some cases, the city's housing is not as dense as it should be. She said city code needs to be reviewed to determine whether it allows an appropriate housing density.

Uhl said his group has met with representatives of the Winneshiek Energy District on housing ideas and would be meeting again soon to discuss the topic.