Assessment sheds light on housing needs of county, its communities

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By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

Over the last few weeks, communities throughout Clayton County have hosted public open houses to evaluate and discuss their housing needs, as determined by a recently-completed Clayton County Housing Needs Assessment.

The assessment, prepared by Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission, has been in the works for over a year. It’s the first of its kind in the county.

“We’ve never done a study before because we’ve always had adequate housing,” shared Darla Kelchen, executive director of the Clayton County Development Group, which commissioned the study. “Now, millennials are coming in who want to rent, not own. That’s changing our process.”

Kelchen said Iowa’s Housing Enterprise Zone Program, which offered certain tax incentives to developers building or rehabilitating homes, ended in July 2015. It was replaced by a sister program, the Iowa Workforce Housing Tax Credit Program, which also highlighted the need for a study. The new program has criteria, she explained, that says “in order to take barren ground and develop it, you have to have a study done.”

The study can be used to help people apply for funding like this, as well as grants, said Sara Neuzil, a planner with Upper Explorerland who led the community meetings.

“In a broader sense, it’s a good idea because it tells what the situation is in your community and can help you brainstorm changes,” she stated.

The assessment can be used by local governments, planning and zoning commissions, nonprofit housing organizations and for economic development.

“You can share this with developers and show them what your needs are,” Kelchen remarked.

Information for the Clayton County Housing Needs Assessment was gleaned through Census data and surveys with county industries. 

Neuzil said several large employers surveyed their employees who live outside the community but may be interested in relocating, asking what they’d be looking for in terms of housing. Of the county’s workforce, 2,700 people commute to Clayton County for work (over 5,000 leave and over 2,900 stay).

The county also formed a task force to provide input, Neuzil continued. It involved people from the communities and schools, as well as realtors and lenders—people with an interest in and knowledge of housing in the area.

The needs assessment provides statistics about housing in Clayton County as a whole, but also breaks down statistics for 10 communities in the county, including McGregor, Marquette, Monona, Luana, Guttenberg, Garnavillo, Elkader, Strawberry Point, Volga and Edgewood. Figures are  provided for the area outside those communities, including rural areas and the county’s smaller communities, as well.

So what did the needs assessment discover?

According to the study, Clayton County’s population has dropped 14 percent since 1980. Its communities have also seen population decreases, with the exception of Luana (up 9 percent), Garnavillo (up 3 percent) and Monona (up 1 percent).

Clayton County’s median household income of $47,725 falls below the state average of $53,712. McGregor boasts the highest median income in the county at $55,410, while Marquette is the lowest at $27,511.

The study deemed 36 percent of the county’s homeowners as “cost-burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their total income on housing costs. For renters, the number jumps to 39.1 percent.

Per the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a four-person family that earns below $49,450 is considered low-income.

According to the study, data indicates the county had a housing shortage in 2010, but high construction rates and an overall declining population has created a surplus in future projections. 

However, there is an affordability/availability mismatch. There’s a surplus of homes in the $25,000-$50,000 value/ $400-$799 rental range. They’re too expensive for those with lower incomes but not adequate enough for those who can afford a $50,000-$150,000 home. The result, the study said, is a shortage of housing that fits the needs of current and potential residents.

What about the individual communities?

Many have some of the same characteristics, most notably older homes. County-wide, 43 percent of homes were built prior to 1940, while roughly 73 percent were constructed before 1970. Fifty-eight percent of McGregor’s homes pre-date 1940 and 77 percent were constructed before 1970. Monona’s housing stock shows 50 percent of homes were built before 1940 and 81 percent before 1970. In Marquette, the numbers are a bit lower, with over 45 percent of homes constructed prior to 1940 and 58 percent before 1970. Luana’s numbers demonstrate 43 percent of homes came into being before 1940 and 72 percent before 1970.

“Older homes are typical in Clayton County. It’s not necessarily bad, but it is a concern,” Neuzil said. Older homes, she continued, are typically harder (and often more expensive) to maintain and are not as accessible for people, particularly as they age. 

Kelchen said realtors have found many younger, prospective home buyers in the county are seeking ranch-style homes with two-car garages and dishwashers.

Neuzil said many communities are in need of newer housing to fill that need. That may not always mean new construction, however.

“McGregor doesn’t necessarily need new homes. The types of housing need to be adjusted,” she explained. “Renovate to meet people’s needs. There’s a need for $100,000 to $149,000 homes, but it’s hard to build for that, so that indicates a need to renovate $50,000 to $99,000 homes, of which there are excess homes available.”

McGregor, like the other communities, also has a surplus of housing units for the $25,000 to $49,000 income range. There, the study shows an excess of 89 housing units. In Luana, the number is 29, while in Marquette it’s just 12. Monona has 195 housing units currently available.

The surplus, Nuezil said, coupled with the need for housing in the lowest income bracket, indicates a need for financial assistance for qualifying households. 

“Addressing the lower income is the toughest problem to solve because you don’t want to drop values around town,” she said. “The best option is offering assistance so people can live in a home above their means.”

Neuzil said communities can do that by utilizing tax credits and informing and helping citizens take advantage of housing programs.

Some future actions the study determined all communities can complete include improving the existing housing stock, adding homes that meet the community’s needs and both understanding and encouraging a healthy housing market.

Communities also have actions they can take that are unique to their situation.

“The county is so diverse,” Kelchen noted. “No communities are the same.”

In Monona, Neuzil shared, one way to improve existing housing stock would be to create an incubator business mentoring program to fill vacant spaces downtown. For that program, many prospective business owners could live above the business.

“That’s why it fits into the housing study,” Neuzil explained.

Marquette, Neuzil said, has a larger percentage (35 percent) of homeowners who are 65 or older. 

“Marquette falls on the higher end with seniors, which indicates people might be interested in moving to newer, more accessible homes,” like senior housing, she said.

Moving forward, McGregor has two specific needs, according to the assessment. One is to form an organization to coordinate homeowners’ floodplain appeals. Those in attendance at the city’s open house agreed fighting FEMA’s floodplain designations individually is difficult and costly, so it would be more effective to work together. 

“It would be a big help for the town,” commented Bob Hauber, from Central State Bank. “As flood insurance gets more expensive, it makes it harder for people to afford it. It affects the sale prices of homes, as well. That’s pretty dramatic for McGregor, where a lot of properties are in the floodplain.”

Another need McGregor has is to make sewer and stormwater improvements. That would be helpful for housing, especially in the floodplain, Neuzil remarked.

Now that information has been presented throughout the county, Kelchen said the next step is for cities to brainstorm what they’d like to do moving forward, in addition to forming partnerships within their communities to meet their respective needs.

“Another step is to have a county-wide housing meeting and bring together funders who can help get things going,” she added.

For those who would like more information about the Clayton County Housing Needs Assessment or details about any of the individual communities, go to

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