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Jeff Zarling, Williston, N.D., Published February 23 2013

Letter: Housing initiative at risk

There are many challenges facing North Dakota during this time of unprecedented growth and opportunity. If you had to name just one as the most significant issue, you would most likely single out “housing” and more specifically “affordable housing.”

It may be the most passionately discussed issue among residents and newcomers alike. We have seen many letters to the editor of local papers and other stories complaining of the lack of housing, the price of rent, calls for property owners to hold rents down, cries to city leaders to control rents, and demands for state leaders to do something about it.

City and state leaders have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure to spur housing development and increase housing supply, which will eventually reduce pricing pressure. But the time it takes for the market to adjust to sustainable levels doesn’t help the immediate needs of affordable housing for essential service, health care, education and service sector employees whose wages don’t support the elevated market rates.

The governor and state legislators created the Housing Incentive Fund during the 2011 special legislative session to provide an immediate solution. While rent controls are not legal in North Dakota, the program provides grant dollars to multifamily developers in return for guaranteed rents on selected project units.

The HIF program has funded 26 projects accounting for 739 total apartment units. There are three projects in Williston, totaling 183 apartments. Not all of the projects are in the oil-affected counties as there are projects in Kulm, Grand Forks, Devils Lake and Mandan, accounting for 124 apartment units.

Rents for the guaranteed units are based on area median income and target formulas of the program. An example project presented by the North Dakota Housing Finance Agency, the agency responsible for the program, shows rents ranging from $576 to $692 for the 50 percent median income group and $900 to $1,200 for the 140 percent median income group.

The success of the program inspired Gov. Jack Dalrymple to propose an extension of $50 million, including $20 million capitalized through contributions similar to the original program, and $30 million as a direct appropriation in the budget of the NDHFA.

In the Legislature, House Bill 1029 was amended by the committee and the $30 million was removed. In my opinion, affordable housing is at the top of our list of significant issues, and this program should not be an item we cut in the governor’s budget proposal.

It may be that we have not communicated the importance of affordable housing to our legislators. The funds can be restored in the Senate, and we should express our support for such an action. If you believe that affordable housing is one of our top priorities, there are three things you can do at the website HIFSupport.org: Learn the details about the program, contact the appropriate legislators, pledge to contribute.

Zarling is president, DAWA Solutions Group.