By Bob Zientara
There was good news and bad news shared Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019, when the West Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission released the first draft of a housing study about the city of Barron.
First, the good news:
• People who are looking for housing in Barron are more than able to afford the estimated monthly rent or mortgage payments, based on existing rental costs and the average value of a single-family home in the city.
• Population in the city of Barron rose more than 3 percent between 2000 and 2017 – an estimated 101 people.
• A “strong majority” of people in the Barron County workforce (including people who work in Barron) desire to buy homes in the next five years.
And then, the bad news:
• About one of every four owner-occupied homes in the city was built when Franklin Roosevelt was president (1939).
• The availability of a single-family home in the city is exactly zero.
• At a ratio of 60 percent owner-occupied homes compared to 40 percent renter-occupied units, the city of Barron has one of the county’s highest ratio of rental homes and apartments, compared to owner-occupied units.
About 20 people attended the Aug. 1 meeting at City Hall, including local citizens, elected representatives, and officials from local and regional economic development and planning agencies.
The group went over the first draft of a housing study that will involve Barron, five other municipal governments in the county, and Barron County as a whole. It’s part of a process that will end about six weeks from now, according to Chris Straight, senior planner with the West Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.
Straight said he and associate Susan Badtke will host a Sept. 16 meeting at Rice Lake to “identify … tools to address local housing needs (in Barron and throughout the county).
“While some strategies will be (recommended) for all communities, there will be some specific differences or priorities” for Barron and the other municipal governments that contributed money to fund the study – including Chetek, Cameron, Turtle Lake, Cumberland and Rice Lake.
On Aug. 1, Straight said one big reason for the meeting was to make sure the planners didn’t miss anything, and whether local residents thought they had “got it right.”
Local reactions vary
Based on the feedback, Straight said, there were not too many surprises.
For example, people at the meeting said there are so few single-family homes for sale in Barron that young families choose to live in nearby Almena, where the homes are both newer and available.
Senior citizens face a different kind of dilemma.
“I’m going to find a place to rent only if it is big enough,” said Roberta Mosentine. She said she plans to stay in her home as long as she is healthy enough to take care of it.
“I am not going to leave my home and move into something that’s only 700 square feet,” Mosentine added. “I’m too old to buy a new home, and even if I sold the one I’m in, I couldn’t afford a new one.”
Isaak Mohamed, Barron School District staff member, said the shortage of housing for members of the Somali community is forcing some residents to leave town.
Council member Paul Solie reminded the group that economic activity in Barron is still in recovery from the Great Recession of 2008-2012.
“We are only 11 years removed from the big smash,” he said. “Lots of (housing) developers never recouped their losses.”
Study included local interviews
The regional planners conducted interviews with workers and residents in Barron, the other five communities that chipped in to pay for the study, and throughout the county.
Straight, Badtke and Armstrong shared the results of those interviews at the Aug. 1 meeting, including a summary of housing conditions and statistics.
The planners said deteriorating housing conditions were a significant concern for Barron homeowners. A mix of choices is needed for all age brackets, they added.
“A lot of folks who work here but don’t live here don’t desire to relocate to Barron,” Badtke said.
The workforce survey for the city of Barron disclosed that the most common jobs include “laborers, butchers, retail workers, cashiers, fast food workers, office staffers, truck drivers, building/cleaning workers, nurses and cooks.”
There was a question why teachers weren’t part of the group. The planners said they interviewed teachers, but the numbers weren’t enough to make the top 10 list.
Overcrowding is an issue in Barron rental housing, they added. The U.S. Census Bureau uses a measuring stick of one person per room as the overcrowding threshold, they said.
Based on that criteria, about 7 percent of the city’s rental housing is overcrowded, they said.
The study showed that from the year 2000 through 2016, rent went up 49 percent in Barron, but income went up 91 percent.
“That was unique,” Straight said. “The other five communities (in the survey) displayed no such trend.”
Federal guidelines say that if someone spends 30 percent or more of their income on housing, they are considered overburdened with housing costs. Given that number, the average Barron renter is more than able to afford an apartment, the planners added.
“The median income in Barron is $33,000, which, for renters, is not too bad,” Straight said.
Of city’s stock of 799 owner-occupied units, 59 percent are worth $90,000 or less.
“That presented an opportunity to us as we drove around the city,” Straight said. “Possibly, new housing stock could open things up.”
As things now stand, Barron could use at least 16 to 20 more single-family housing units to meet existing demand, the planners said.
“A healthy vacancy rate is 2 to 2.5 percent,” Badtke said. “The (current) vacancy rate is zero in Barron.”
Straight said most of the reactions at the Barron meeting confirmed the numbers in the study, with one notable exception.
“We did learn that the waiting lists for public-assisted housing in Barron County are significantly higher than our initial data suggested,” he said. “There is truly a need for a mix of housing types for everyone.”
Armstrong said the city seems to need one or two more apartment buildings to adequately house the Somali community and other renters.
“There is a senior citizen project on the drawing board, but even if it is built, it won’t provide enough units for (seniors) who want to downsize from their current homes, but who want to continue living in Barron,” he said.
“As for the workforce survey, the sweet spot seems to be single-family housing priced from $90,000 to $170,000,” Armstrong added.
There are developers who are interested in building homes like that, but they’ll need government funds to help them turn a profit, he added.
Without the housing study, neither the county nor the developers can get access to that funding, Armstrong said.