New town homes are under construction in Litchfield

New housing of all types, including town homes like these under construction earlier last year just east of County Road 34 in Litchfield, is needed to solve Meeker County’s housing shortage.

Meeker County has a workforce problem.

It’s called housing.

Housing availability in the county — both for ownership and rental — has been an issue for a number of years, according to David Krueger, executive director of Meeker County Development Corp. But it has grown more severe in recent years, to the point that business and industry are feeling the pinch.

“What’s accelerated the conversation (about housing) has really been private industry,” Krueger said. “They can’t find employees anymore, and their main factor is housing.”

It’s that squeeze that prompted Krueger to plan a Meeker County Housing Forum last week in cooperation with Southwest Initiative Foundation and Meeker County Housing and Redevelopment Authority. More than 70 city and county government officials attended to hear about the challenge and possible solutions.

The trouble in Meeker County is a combination of housing price points and wages.

According to a Minnesota Housing Partnership study, the average hourly wage to afford a modest two-bedroom home in Meeker County is $14.73. That ranks Meeker County above the statewide average — 33rd out of 80 counties — for highest housing wage in the state.

Rental housing is just as challenging, if not more, with the wage necessary to afford a modest one-bedroom apartment in Meeker County rising 12 percent during the past decade.

A minimum wage earner would have to work 61 hours per week in order to afford a one-bedroom apartment in Meeker County. Meanwhile, the average worker in Meeker County would have to work 65 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

There are no surprises in those numbers for Krueger. Meeker County Development Corp. partnered with cities to do a housing study about three years ago, which foreshadowed the coming housing shortage.

With myriad other issues — “city councils are worried about water, sewer, streets” first and foremost, Krueger said — the housing study was not acted upon.

But attendance at last week’s forum indicates a change in priorities for governmental officials.

“We’re now at a point of critical mass, where so many different areas are changing at one time that no one can ignore the issue any longer,” Krueger said. “These things have been talked about in theory in the past, but we haven’t created policy. We sort of talk about it in theory and it never really gets going.”

While in the past many employers have attracted employees from outside Meeker County who are willing to commute, that is becoming less of an option.

“Employers are saying, ‘We have exhausted our workforce in terms of finding someone willing to drive from somewhere else,’” Krueger said. “They’re hearing (from job candidates), ‘If we can’t find a place, we’re not coming.’ That was not occurring to this level even three years ago.”

The housing forum was as much an effort to get elected officials to think creatively to solve the housing challenge as anything.

Krueger brought in colleagues from throughout southwest Minnesota to discuss routes they had taken to solving similar housing crises. Among them was Tara Onken, director of Marshall Economic Development Authority; Aaron Backman, executive director of Kandiyohi County and city of Willmar Economic Development Commission; and Abraham Algadi, executive director of Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp.

The panel discussed a wide variety of approaches, from tax abatement to tax increment financing, to help fund and encourage housing developments

For Krueger, though, the key was getting everyone in the same room, thinking about ways to tackle an issue that touches every community in the county.

At meeting’s end, he asked both government officials, as well as contractors, manufacturing representatives and others to sign up and serve as part of a task force. Ideally, Krueger said, he would like two representatives from each city in the county to serve on the task force, which he hopes to assemble for a first meeting by early January.

“We have some charged up people, people who are interested in doing something,” Krueger said. “This is not something I saw a couple years ago. This is critical mass. And there is opportunity.”