Keep the convo going on housing

In reviewing survey responses and considering action plans through the Phillips County-Wide Housing Needs Assessment, it was clear at Oct. 2 discussion meetings that the housing conversation needs to continue.

“We just need to keep the conversation going,” said Phillips County Economic Development Executive Director Trisha Herman.

Jake Palm of Hanna:Keelan Associates, P.C., who led the housing discussion at separate meetings in Holyoke and Haxtun last Wednesday, closed the Holyoke meeting by noting that the next piece for the county is to put together a five-year action plan.

This will involve designating actual feasible projects that can be taken on in the next five years. While housing problems were cited, it’s important to identify solutions and target ones to move forward with.

“You can’t let a plan just sit there. Pick something you want to do and go after it,” Palm emphasized. “Keep the conversation going.”

Close to 20 participants gathered at each of the Haxtun and Holyoke discussion meetings Oct. 2 to stay informed on the ongoing Phillips County-Wide Housing Needs Assessment.

Palm shared that Hanna:Keelan is a Nebraska-based community planning and research consulting firm. It is in its 42nd year of serving communities, counties and organizations with community and regional planning and affordable housing programs in 18 states.

Two Phillips County housing needs surveys were recently completed — a countywide citizen survey and a workforce housing needs survey.

 A total of 259 responded to the first survey, representing about 14% of households in the county. Palm noted that a 10% response is considered good. A majority of those responding were homeowners rather than renters.

The workforce housing survey attracted 136 responses, with a fairly even split between homeowners and renters.

Barriers for affordable, suitable housing in both surveys targeted cost of rent and lack of availability of decent rental units in consumers’ price range for renters; and housing prices and lack of sufficient homes for sale for owners.

Single-family homes with a monthly rent or mortgage payment of $500-$700 were cited as housing needs in the surveys.

Employers in the county shared their dilemma of missed opportunities of bringing in new employees due to lack of adequate housing.

After hearing input on lack of affordable housing, Herman steered the discussion toward plans with partnerships among landowners, developers and buyers.

A modular community, tiny homes and four-plex townhomes were thrown out as ideas.

Costs for infrastructure were touted as reasons for lack of new building, and zoning was addressed.

Palm referenced communities that have had innovation zones, in which everything built there is by special permit. It serves as an incentive to attract developers.

Developer Nick Ferguson said people want to buy a house and move in — not build. Realtor Olga Sullivan added that many want to be in the country, just outside of town on a little acreage. The infrastructure costs for such things as water and sewer are big issues in these settings.

Banker Tom Bennett, who also owns multi-plex units, asked if there’s someplace to partner private businesses employing a high number of staff members with cities because they have a vested interest in it.

Perhaps each entity could allocate specific moneys per year toward a plan in order to stay out of the housing business themselves. In his first eight-plex, Bennett noted a larger business rented six of his eight units, which was more favorable than building their own.

Melissa Memorial Hospital CEO Trampas Hutches said the partnership ability is there, as they don’t want to be in the housing business. He also noted if they look to do something with some of the hospital acreage, the survey targets everything from single-family homes all the way down to nursing homes/long-term care, which is a broad range.

Another comment cited 55 and older communities for those who don’t want to be in low-income housing but want a structure where they aren’t responsible for maintenance and mowing, etc.

Local homeowner Janelle Krueger, who doesn’t live in the county at this point, suggested looking at current assets in the community instead of starting from scratch.

She mentioned the Burge Hotel that’s for sale and also identified the infrastructure already in place in the former hospital in Holyoke.

Palm asked about owner/renter rehab programs and existing grants available in the county. Realtor Casey Blake said there are rehab loans available for those who qualify, which allows you to buy a house in need of repairs.

Herman pointed out that part of applying for grants is having numbers in place. There has to be a specific project, then you must show economic need, employee numbers, etc. She said they’re working to get those kinds of demographics in place in order to enhance grant applications.

She also mentioned looking to other communities and what has worked in them to see potential ideas for Holyoke and Haxtun.

Krueger noted that when working with public moneys, a public record request is sufficient for asking to see the highest-scoring project in grant funding from the year before. This can lead to project ideas for attainable goals.

Moving forward, Herman encouraged those present at last week’s meetings to contact her with ideas or people who might be interested in the five-year action plan. “We just need to keep the conversation going,” she reiterated.

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