The same money and effort that go into planning business parks need to be put into housing, Winneshiek County Development Inc. (WCDI) Director Randy Uhl told the Winneshiek County Board of Supervisors Monday.
Uhl provided the Board with an update on a recent countywide housing assessment that indicated a long-term need of about 300 new housing units over the next 10 years and includes numerous recommendations on how to reach that number. The study called for 70 percent of the 300 housing units to be built in the immediate Decorah area.
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 at Decorah City Hall last month.
Shukert and RDG were hired by WCDI after a WCDI housing team studied housing issues throughout the county during much of 2013.
Uhl said the organization is "very interested" in looking at ways to address housing needs and to work with Decorah City Manager Chad Bird on possible tools to help solve the dilemma.
WCDI will soon be making a recommendation to the Decorah City Council on how to possibly proceed.
Supervisor Dennis Karlsbroten asked how the county might be involved.
"We're taking baby steps in Decorah first," Uhl said. Eventually county officials might be asked to become involved with infrastructure improvements related to housing because it's difficult for contractors to make money on housing developments in general, Uhl commented.
Shukert, who has conducted similar CHAT studies throughout the Upper Midwest since the mid-1990s, said during his report last month that 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.

Webster City
Uhl said Webster City officials were contacted about recent housing projects in that city where the contractor was provided free land purchased by the city for a development.
"Webster City also provided a guarantee that if a spec home didn't sell, the city would buy it. All the homes sold," Uhl told the supervisors.
"It costs a lot of money to build a spec home and have it sitting there," Karlsbroten said.
Uhl said the city manager of Webster City said without public participation, the housing development wouldn't have happened. Uhl added there are various possibilities for meeting housing needs, and local officials need to decide what will work here. (Recommendations from Shukert are listed in the accompanying side bar).
Board of Supervisors Chairman John Logsdon said due to Decorah's topography, there isn't a 200-acre site readily available for housing.
"Because of the crater .... we're in a little different situation," he said, referring to the bowl the city sits in formed by a meteorite impact 470 million years ago. 
Karlsbroten asked if the housing study group is pursuing low-income housing and Uhl responded "housing period" is being explored.
Uhl said the city of Adel, where Bird worked before he came to Decorah, has provided a seven-year tax abatement for new houses "across the board." Uhl said the thinking is "a rising tide lifts all boats." While that city "took some heat" when the owner of a new $400,000 house received tax abatement, he said that allowed the owner to move out of a house half that price, making it available to a new owner. Uhl said Adel built 90 houses while the abatement was offered.

Business owners
Supervisor Mark Kuhn asked whether business owners have expressed concerns or avoided expansions because there isn't enough of a local labor force.
"That's entirely possible," Uhl said. "Roof tops drive jobs. If people are here living in homes you have a workforce more welcoming to businesses."
He said he's interviewed 10 to 12 major local business, including Winneshiek Medical Center, Luther College and larger manufacturers, that have many workers who are commuting. 
Uhl said some workers commute to Decorah because they prefer living in another community or have a spouse who works there. But he said a larger issue is when businesses are attempting to hire a "high-level" employee and the candidate can't find housing in the immediate area. 
County Auditor Ben Steines said while there are apartment buildings in the area, there's a shortage of two or three-bedroom apartments - the type a person filling a one-year position at Luther might be interested in. Uhl said Luther does need more housing.
"They also have land," Karlsbroten said.

'Front burner'
"The main value of the study was to put it on the front burner and get people talking about it. It's something that hadn't been done for a long time," Uhl said.
"It's interesting," Karlsbroten said. "I've got to hand it to you for looking into the future. People have been talking about it. It's an early step ... It's going to be quite some time before we get real concrete steps."
"I'm looking forward to working with you on this," Logsdson said.