Housing issues need attention

Nearly half the residents calling Park Rapids home write a check for rent every month, home ownership in the city just over 50 percent. In neighboring Nevis, 80 percent of the residents own their homes, 81 percent of Akeley dwellers claim homeown...

Nearly half the residents calling Park Rapids home write a check for rent every month, home ownership in the city just over 50 percent.

In neighboring Nevis, 80 percent of the residents own their homes, 81 percent of Akeley dwellers claim homeownership.

In Hubbard County as a whole, 83 percent own the homes in which they reside, compared with a statewide average of 76 percent.

A task force is forming to address the Park Rapids housing issue. Action plans will be drafted focusing on home ownership, development of housing and rehabilitation of existing housing.

"We hope to form a one- stop shop for people to learn about housing," said Kathy Grell, president of the Hubbard County Regional Economic Development Commission (HCREDC).


A summit comprised of local and state officials and private enterprise representatives convened this week to address community housing issues.

"Housing is a critical component to a healthy community," said Tim Flathers, community development director with the Headwaters Regional Development Commission.

The county, he said, has grown by 23 percent in the past decade, noting development is needed to support the burgeoning population base.

"Financial literacy," he noted, is a key component for potential homebuyers.

Assistance available

"The down payment issue is not what it used to be," said Steve Kopkie, a loan officer with Northwoods Bank, "especially for first-time homebuyers. In some cases, it's zero down." Some potential homebuyers are unaware of available options, he said. But high debt ratios are also a factor.

Credit history, college debt and debt-to-income ratios are factors inhibiting home ownership, the bank officials agreed.

"It's hard to understand not paying bills," said Tina Eischens of the Human Achievement and Performance Academy. "Ninety-five percent of the people I work with have the ability to meet financial obligations," she said of the financial literacy initiative she administers. "But they need to change their behavior regarding money."


Banks "intimidate" her clients, she said. "People need to understand they have the ability to change if they are to be homeowners."

Michele Mahowald of the Hubbard County Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) promoted Home Stretch, suggesting it be re-introduced in the high school.

Home Stretch, designed for first-time homebuyers, addresses credit, the role of the lender, understanding the loan closing process and legal rights and responsibilities of a homebuyer.

Mahowald reported 17 homes have been rehabilitated in Hubbard County, inhabited by people who do not qualify for traditional funding.

The Mahube Community Council also assists low-income individuals with a continuum of services, Marcia Otte explained. These include emergency housing, transitional housing, mortgage foreclosure prevention as well as programs on home buying.

Last year, 292 households were assisted in the tri-county area, 30 percent in Hubbard County.

"Minnesota is leading the nation," she said of FAIM - Family Assets for Independence in Minnesota - a matched savings account project.

Participants save earned income each month that's matched on a three-to-one rate for up to 24 months. The program assists homebuyers, those pursuing higher education or initiating a small business.


Matching funds are paid when participants reach their savings goal. The program is geared to amend spending and saving behavior, while reducing consumer debt.

A big chunk of the budget

Housing costs should consume no more than 30 percent of household income, said Shannon Guernsey of the Minnesota Housing Partnership.

"But Minnesota has more cost-burdened households than any other state in the country," she said.

Nearly one in eight Minnesotans spends more than half their income on housing, up from one in 15 in 2000.

While Minnesota's home sales prices increased 32 percent from 2000 to 2005, median incomes fell slightly, after inflation.

Guernsey advocated "community dialogue" on the issue. "Affordable housing involves an array of issues," she said "Creating and preserving affordable housing takes a number of years."

Jim Steenerson, grant specialist with the Northwest Minnesota Foundation, said funding programs exist for housing studies.


"The funds should be used as a catalyst," he said, advocating the development of a housing plan, not a mere study "that's no good on the shelf."

He reminded the audience of days of yore, when neighbors assisted in construction of a sod hut.

"Go back to the basics," he suggested. "Form partnerships, coalitions... Look to us for grant money to make it happen," he said.

Grell was commended by several of the forum participants for her and husband Larry's "energy efficient, affordable housing" initiative, Pleasantview.

"A lot of people are deathly afraid of going into a bank to ask for a loan," Grell said. She works with clients to "repair" credit as well as accessing first-time homebuyer funds.

"Several programs exist that can be tapped for funds," Grell said.

A Habitat for Humanity has formed in Hubbard County, with one or two homes tentatively scheduled to be built in 2008, Heather Meyer of the Brainerd chapter reported.

The nearly all-volunteer labor force cuts costs appreciably, the average mortgage for a three-bedroom home, including taxes and insurance, is $350 per month, she said.


The homes are built for low-income families who do not qualify for conventional financing. Of the five most recent approvals, four are working households, she said.

The Brainerd chapter has initiated a store where donated and salvaged material is sold at a 75 percent reduction of the original cost.

Volunteer crews de-construct lake homes, for example, that are being taken down for a new structure.

"We're keeping material out of landfills," Meyer said.

Applications for the Park Rapids Habitat for Humanity homes are coming in, she reported. "We're excited to be up here. We hope to make a difference in Hubbard County."

What To Read Next
Get Local