DEVILS LAKE – In northern North Dakota, economic development leaders are trying to figure out what comes first — housing or workers.
“Housing goes hand in hand with workforce, and all of our counties are also having workforce issues,” said Sandy Shively, executive director of the North Central Planning Council.
The council — which oversees the counties of Benson, Cavalier, Eddy, Ramsey, Rolette and Towner — and economic development leaders in that region are working out solutions to housing problems using data from a study that published in December 2021 after looking at the state of housing there. It was conducted by business consulting firm Thomas P. Miller & Associates. According to Shively, the study was conducted to identify opportunities and challenges in the housing market, giving community leaders a place to start when addressing housing needs in the region.
The study gives a profile of each individual county, including geographic features, housing trends and population makeup by age, race and household income.
Shivley says in all of the counties in the study, a consistent need identified is housing for middle-income residents — defined by the Pew Research Center as households that earn between two-thirds and double the median household income in the U.S.
“If they want to get, say, school teachers into their area, it’s really hard for them to find housing,” said Shively.
There is little financial support for households in the middle-income range, says Shannon Duerr, executive director of the Cavalier County Job Development Authority.
“Many state and federal programs to assist with housing development are geared toward low- and moderate-income housing. What we need is rentals for individuals who are working in jobs in our community that don’t qualify for LMI, like health care and education,” said Duerr.
Building new housing comes with its own set of challenges — the main one being a lack of specialists, contractors and builders.
“All of our counties have a shortage of electricians, plumbers, heating and air professionals, so establishing new housing is a challenge,” said Shively.
And in places where contractors and builders are ready to go to work, Dennis Gleason, owner of Gleason Construction in Devils Lake, says finding workers is problematic.
“There are just not as many people, period, so you don’t have the number of contractors and suppliers,” said Gleason.
Availability and cost of materials are also barriers, said Brad Barth, executive director of Forward Devils Lake.
“One of our problems with housing, period, is the cost and inflation to build something new,” said Barth. “You can’t build a $200,000 home anymore. Now it’s a $300,000 home, so you have to have pretty good incomes to afford that.”
Gleason says many locations in north-central North Dakota are far from suppliers, often located in Grand Forks and Fargo, which adds extra time and costs to projects.
With interest in local health care in Devils Lake shown by Altru Health System, Sanford Health and Essentia Health in the last year , Barth is worried what a lack of developers will mean if a new health care provider enters the region, potentially with a new hospital.
“When we have any new business come in, it takes housing stock to do that and it takes new housing,” said Barth. “Sometimes you have to have development to kickstart and spur some of that for developers, but the workforce shortage affects all of us. Contractors can’t get subcontractors, or subcontractors cost more because they can charge more.”
According to Shively, county leaders are still in the beginning stages of exploring ways to increase housing availability, both for ownership and rental. The study lays out a few options.
Included in the list are land cost reduction programs, tax credit programs, a housing information hub to make looking for rental properties or properties for sale easier, and creation or expansion of renaissance programs, a state program that allows tax incentives for projects in a designated renaissance zone.
“Finding a way to encourage development that allows the builders to recover their costs and see good return on their investment while keeping rents reasonable will be a key issue,” said Duerr.
With the workforce shortage identified as a part of the problem, some solutions might have to come from a labor approach. In Devils Lake, one way Barth hopes to tackle the workforce shortage in trades like plumbing, electricity and heating is the 20 by 20 Program, a skilled workforce recruitment and retention program run by Forward Devils Lake. In the program, Forward Devils Lake and participating businesses reimburse students for up to 80% of the cost of a one- or two-year college technical program if the student commits to coming back to the Devils Lake region for three years after completion of the program to work for the employer funding their education.
“They could leave after that, but hopefully they’ve met someone, settled down a little bit and want to stay longer,” he said.
Barth thinks the solutions lie with a region-wide effort. He explained that while somebody may work in Devils Lake, they could live in Lakota or Michigan, or other small towns located in neighboring counties.
“That’s a big area, but I can, on any given day, run into somebody who’s from any one of those counties that works (in Ramsey County),” said Barth. “How do we help some of those small towns get better housing stock?”