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Column: Housing: Whose responsibility is it?

Housing is a hot topic in most small towns. Everybody has opinions on the causes of the problems, and many people have good ideas for solutions. But when push comes to shove, it’s difficult to find people and organizations willing to step up to the plate to implement solutions.

Everybody has a valid excuse

People and organizations have many valid reasons for not developing housing in our small towns. Housing developers and contractors often shy away because the profit margin may not be there or the risk is too great. Economic development corporations want to stay focused on their primary mission, which is often job creation. And housing entities, like public housing authorities, want to continue doing what they were originally created to do, which is usually to manage affordable housing.

So how do we break this logjam?

The De Smet story

I think an emerging project in De Smet offers insight into both questions.

Back in November 2014, about 50 community members gathered for a facilitated conversation about De Smet’s housing needs. The gathering was a part of the Home Address program.

During the course of the afternoon, two conversations began to overlap. The first focused on workforce housing, especially for newcomers to the community. The second explored how the De Smet Housing Authority might be an asset in developing new housing options. Everyone agreed on the importance of workforce housing. The members of the housing authority who were present, however, suggested that the housing authority probably wasn’t a good fit to solve the issue.

At the end of the session, a group of volunteers agreed to continue to work on the issue. Over the next several months, the team learned a lot about options, but two central issues threatened to derail their efforts. First, they couldn’t find anyone who was interested in being the developer. And second, they discovered that the costs of construction would force rents to be higher than what tenants could pay.

The solutions to these problems began to emerge when the group presented their project concept to a group of housing resource providers at one Home Address gathering. The team learned that the project might quality for some grant funding from the S.D. Housing Opportunity Fund (HOF). But before they could apply, they had to find someone or some entity that wanted to own the property. With this in mind, they decided to return to the De Smet Housing Authority.

Without judgment or blame, the team went back to the housing authority board and shared what they had learned about the HOF. They then asked, “What’s getting in the way? What’s preventing you from taking on a project like this? And what could we do to help?”

The answer was pretty simple: “We’re already stretched thin with our time and finances. If you would take care of the development process, we would be able to manage it once the units are ready to rent.”

This broke the logjam. It gave the team permission to help. They stepped up and put together both the development plan and the grant application on behalf of the housing authority. In December 2015, their project was awarded $298,500 in grant funds from the HOF, and the project is now set for construction sometime in the summer of 2016.

It’s an example of a “housing win” that many small towns are seeking.

Judgment and blame

All of our community groups have an opportunity to step up to the plate with housing solutions.

But when people or organizations that we think should take on the solution are unwilling to do so, one of the worst things we can do is pass judgment or blame. Judgment and blame put up barriers. They hinder collaboration, and prevent us from getting what we want.

Instead, we should ask questions such as, “What’s really getting in the way?” and “What can we do to help?” And then be ready to step up yourself.

That’s what community leaders in De Smet did. And soon, they will have a new housing project to show for it.

 

Through his business, MAK(e) Strategies, Mike Knutson of Watertown, S.D., is a community coach and facilitator. Among his many activities, Mike currently serves as a community coach in Home Address, a Dakota Resources program designed to build community capacity for strategic housing development, now and in the future.