In an area of often explosive growth, working families face challenges of being able to afford housing.
That was a repeated theme raised at a Brainerd lake area housing forum Friday that brought Sen. Norm Coleman to a roundtable discussion on the issue. He heard success stories and visions for development projects for both market value homes and those designed to be affordable for workers.
The discussion included the efforts of neighborhood groups, landlords, housing officials and law enforcement in Brainerd to improve residential areas. And Coleman heard there are people who feel they may be slipping through the cracks.
At issue is a lakes area rich with natural resources that is attracting new residents. Crow Wing County, estimated to have a population of 58,000 in 2003, is expected to reach more than 100,000 residents by 2020.
"Brainerd is one of the fastest growing areas in the state," Coleman said.
Rick Van-Geest, who lives near Garrison, works in Brainerd as does his wife. Van-Geest said he thinks the expected population growth in Crow Wing County will happen faster than predictions for 2020.
As one of the little people born in the area, Van-Geest said he cannot see anything affordable in housing. Van-Geest said they live in a one-room cabin without electricity or running water because that is what they can afford and their only debt is their car. He said they expect to have enough money for a down payment, but wonder about costs after that.
"Am I going to be able to make the payments?" he said, asking what the answer is for the working people already living here. "We are not dummies. We are not low life. We just cannot afford the high cost of living."
2002 home sales and average sale price
Baxter -- 153 sales, $166,983.
Brainerd -- 222 sales, $95,664.
Crow Wing County -- 711 sales, $201,881.
New dwelling permits issued in 2003
Baxter -- 81
Brainerd -- 45
Breezy Point -- 105
Crosslake -- 42
Nisswa -- 48
Crow Wing County -- 721
Source: Brainerd Housing and Redevelopment Authority.
Coleman said while he has no magic wand efforts on downpayment assistance and those of members on the housing panel in Brainerd are aimed at working people.
"There are a lot of folks like you out there," he said. At the end of the session, Coleman said the discussion reinforced with him the need to provide affordable housing. He said he will support President Bush's initiative on no downpayment and tax credits for other development projects, which panelists noted have been used to keep rental rates down.
During the panel discussion, Coleman said the data about the increase in home values in Brainerd in just the last couple of years was stunning.
Doug Grout, Brainerd Housing and Redevelopment Authority executive director, provided an overview of current housing in the lakes area. He said efforts are to encourage mixed-income neighborhoods with green space and options for parks for play areas.
Area housing projects highlighted included patio homes, senior housing, affordable home ownership, as well as rental housing, construction of new residential areas and redevelopment of existing neighborhoods.
Coleman, former St. Paul mayor, said concepts had moved away from separating people from living near work and play area to designs with concentric circles that had people living near green space and near work.
"It appears to me you've got that," he said. "Who's doing the visioning here?"
Grout said area cities and Crow Wing County have all been working on comprehensive plans and he noted the creation of the Brainerd-Baxter Housing Partnership in 2003. Partnerships with organizations involved in economic development, such as Brainerd Lakes Area Development Corp. and the Brainerd Lakes Area Chambers of Commerce were included.
"The relationship between jobs and housing is critical and sometimes we tend to forget about that," Coleman said. He also noted how much a difference home ownership can make on individuals' relationship with the community. Coleman said Bush is looking at the issue of help with down payments to ease one of the biggest stumbling block for many, especially when it comes to first-time homebuyers.
Panelist and private developer David Bell said affordable housing is often misunderstood.
"It's really the working class," Bell said.
Bell said complex housing studies have helped developers see areas of housing needs -- retirees coming into the area or moving off lake property and mass groups of people whose incomes have not kept pace with construction costs. Low interest rates have helped many afford a home for the first time.
Joel Keller, spoke for the new Brainerd Oaks market rate development. The design for the single family housing development includes curving streets, parks, sidewalks and retained wetlands. Keller said the goal is to build a 100-year neighborhood. Mature white oak are being put in along with hundreds of screening trees. The price for home is expected to be $200,000 and up.
Kevin Pelkey, Lakes Area Habitat for Humanity executive director, said he sees a growing need by working families who spend 30 percent of income on housing and an increasing number spending up to 75 percent, leaving little else for other basic essentials.
"That's just not a viable option," Pelkey said.
Pelkey said the volume of requests for help from Habitat has skyrocketed.
"We've closed applications for the first time in 12 years because we could not keep up with demand," he said. And Pelkey said by 2010 he expects the situation will be worse as access to affordable land is a huge concern. Working in Cass and Crow Wing County, Habitat expects to complete 10 to 12 homes this year.
Bill Rickmeyer, panelist and real estate agent, said business is good.
"We live where they want to be," Rickmeyer said of baby boomers. "It's pretty simple."
But Rickmeyer said the resources, lakes and trees, that draw people to the region have to be protected.
Housing panel participants included Sheila Haverkamp, Brainerd Lakes Area Development Corp. executive director; Lisa Paxton, chief executive officer of the Brainerd Lakes Area Chambers of Commerce; Kevin Goedker, real estate agent and Northeast Brainerd Residents Association representative; and Elizabeth Harris, Brainerd Police Department crime prevention specialist. The forum was sponsored by the chamber and the Brainerd HRA.
Toward the end of the session, Coleman said there is a sense of vibrancy in the lakes area. "You live in a great place," he said. But noting other areas in the state facing decline, the stresses here are a good problem in comparison. "... You are being stressed with opportunity."
After the panel concluded, Coleman said affordable housing is not about someone else but is about people who often live on fixed incomes.
"What you heard here today is a community that understood that," he said. "I think this community is way ahead in the vision -- way ahead in the opportunity."
RENEE RICHARDSON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.
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