Originally published in the Kenosha News
By Community Development Educator, Amy Greil
I attended a local housing roundtable for municipal leaders last week, and it dawned on me just how much the economy and the housing market are intertwined.
Economic expansion begets housing development while housing development begets economic expansion.
In a Kenosha County economy that is quite robust by the numbers — nearly full employment, income growth, low mortgage rates, demographics that have shown improvement (millennials moving out of our parents’ basements) — there are some signs of concern over housing supply.
To spare you the suspense, the roundtable made it clear there are no simple solutions as new housing units’ construction costs outpace household incomes in southeastern Wisconsin. For housing developers facing high construction costs, it is difficult to build homes in the price range that is well-suited to the majority of Kenosha County household incomes.
Overall, supply conditions have tightened (often expressed in “months of inventory”) such that the current listings of existing homes is down (total listings down 14 percent in Wisconsin).
Those houses that are on the market are selling faster, and building permits are low compared to the early 2000s (i.e. 628 single-family permits in Kenosha County in 2000 versus 185 in 2017).
All told, constrained housing supply in Kenosha County is real.
Meanwhile, since 2013, over 10,000 jobs have been created in Kenosha County. Where are these people supposed to live?
If housing is not available near job centers, what does that mean for the existing workforce?
In-commuting patterns already total at least 30,000 workers traveling into Kenosha County for work each day (source www.onthemap.ces.census.gov).
This number will inevitably rise.
Argument for action
As developers grow frustrated by lost opportunities, I hear people fearing change to their local community’s culture or “feel,” making them hesitate to respond to housing supply issues. Additionally, there are the ongoing concerns of increased public sector costs for infrastructure, increased school enrollment burdens, public sector services, etc.
Given these concerns, our local elected officials are often very cautious in supporting new housing developments, even if the rare occasion were to arise when the developer’s financial “stacking” works.
All this makes me wonder how we can manage community change proactively, deliberately, sensitively and urgently with a diverse range of housing options.
This is an opportunity to create a vision for the community and plan for where we want to be in the coming years.
Why does it matter?
The necessity of increasing housing supply is increasingly a workforce attraction/retention issue.
As precious time and resources are spent — wasted — on the road, commuters start to reconsider the appeal of their lifestyle.
If they cannot find housing near their work, they will be at risk of seeking employment elsewhere, closer to home.
This prized talent is looking at all employment options in Kenosha County.
That should concern us all. Communities’ lack of responsible planning, then, diminishes the viability of our local businesses even as they seek to expand their payrolls.
Taken together, communities that win in today’s globalizing world are those having the tough conversations and finding ways to offer local living options for many income groups at different life stages.