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Dave Olson, Published April 05 2013

Heitkamp puts focus on housing costs

FARGO – Affordable housing is one of North Dakota’s most pressing needs, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, said Friday in Fargo.

“It’s about workforce development,” said the first-term Democrat, adding that for the state to attract and retain qualified workers, it must improve its inventory of affordable homes.

Heitkamp said in places like Minot, building lots are now priced at $110,000 “before you even put a shovel in the ground.”

And because of unexpected consequences of new laws that took aim at how large financial institutions do business, Heitkamp said small community banks can no longer afford to do home financing.

“Now we’ve got too small to succeed,” she said, speaking at a roundtable discussion attended by area public officials and community representatives.

Heitkamp said the meeting and similar roundtables held around the state were meant to gather input from communities on what they need to meet housing needs.

The goal, she said, is to figure out how current state and federal resources can best be brought to bear, because new funding is not likely to be forthcoming.

“We are not in that environment,” she said.

While the housing crunch in the Oil Patch was mentioned, local officials said they also see a tremendous demand for affordable places to live.

Dan Mahli, community development administrator for Fargo, talked about “the precariously housed,” individuals who are making monthly rent or house payments, but are only a paycheck away from being on the street.

He said the wage threshold to afford a typical apartment is about $14 an hour, while about $25 an hour is required to afford an average home.

About 50,000 workers in the Fargo-Moorhead area receive between $7.25 and $13 an hour, according to Mahli, who said that includes about 10,000 seniors in Fargo alone, a number he said will grow to more than 20,000 in 10 years.

Laurie Baker, the executive director of the F-M Coalition for Homeless Persons, told Heitkamp it would be helpful if the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would relax some of its rules, which she said can make things complicated for border communities like Fargo and Moorhead.

Baker said she spoke with a family this past week that is in line to receive housing assistance in Moorhead, but in the meantime they could not cross the Red River to stay in a shelter in Fargo without jeopardizing their chances of finding a home in Moorhead.

“They have no place to sleep, and they have seven children,” Baker said.

Heitkamp said that for things to work smoothly for area agencies, the North Dakota Legislature must be part of a collaborative effort.

“We have to impress upon the Legislatures that this is a business issue,” she said.


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555