Workforce Housing Project

Kelly Asche is the program coordinator at CST

Housing continues to be a major topic of discussion among our small towns. Besides organizing a re-configured Symposium on Small Towns (more on that in a later post), CST has been working on a couple of projects to explore some of the issues in more detail. Housing issues are complex and can be difficult to understand how to move forward. The following information provides a framework that a county or city can use to explore housing issues within their region.

One particular county CST has been working in, Pope County, is what we consider to be a “recreational” county. A recreational county typically has economic features that include tourism (in Minnesota that generally means having lakes), and a housing stock with a high percentage of housing units owned by 2nd homeowners (25% or more). Although these counties have plenty of opportunities for economic and community development, they also have their share of challenges, some of which may be housing-related.

Pope County also has a large and vibrant manufacturing sector. However, many employers in this industry have approached city leaders about the difficulties they are having recruiting and retaining employees, and that housing availability may be one of the main culprits. Positively Pope (a leadership group organized by the Chamber of Commerce) and the Pope County Housing Redevelopment Authority has worked with CST to explore and provide details and data about this issue.

As you probably know, housing is complex and understanding what type of housing (rental vs. ownership, size of housing, type of housing, etc…) is key to providing developers and funders the information they need to support any development. To help us develop the methodology, we brought in Ryan Pesch, an Extension Educator from the University of Minnesota.

The first phase of our project consisted of surveying current employees of the major employers in the county. The survey was distributed to 1,700 employees living in and outside of Pope County, asking various questions about their current housing situation, demographic information, as well as their preference to live in Pope County and the difficulty of finding appropriate housing within the County. The purpose of the survey was to develop a profile of the types of households that don’t currently live in Pope County but prefer to live in the county. This will help determine the type of households the county can recruit for housing.

What we found is there absolutely is a belief that housing is difficult to find among current employees within the county. Nearly 50% (figure 1) of all respondents said it was difficult to find housing.


If we break that down further, we see that 61% (figure 2) of respondents that don’t currently live in the county, find housing difficult to obtain within the county.

figure2Of the respondents who don’t live in the county but want to live within the county, not a single one said it was easy to obtain housing (figure 3).


From the survey, we were able to build a profile of households that were significantly more likely to respond that housing is difficult to find within the county. The following numbers reflect the entire population of respondents.


We now have a profile of the types of households that find it challenging to obtain housing in the county, so the second phase of the project focused on gaining information about the type of housing that is difficult to obtain. The following points are the main themes summarized from the focus groups.

  • There is a low availability of rentals within the County.
  • Of the rentals that were available, participants expressed that they were expensive and of low quality.
  • There is a gap of availability between low cost housing and high-end housing; essentially, housing between $125,000 and $200,000.

These results provide valuable quantitative and qualitative information that can be used in applying for grants or loans, in discussions with developers, and to help develop certain municipal and county-wide policies such as changing zoning restrictions or rental codes. The leadership of these Pope County organizations are currently considering all of these options.

Any county or city can conduct a project like this. It is low-cost and simple enough to do without the help of experts. We would be happy to share the survey instrument and any details about the project with anyone who might be interested in pursuing similar projects.

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