Last night, the Storm Lake City Council held a study session on housing issues in the City, hoping to spur development of all forms of housing.
Needless to say, you don't solve a problem as complex and far-reaching as Storm Lake's housing shortage in an hour, but you do have to start somewhere.
This is how good, representative government works. Hashing your needs out openly, in a public setting, and admitting when you don't have all the answers. It's one thing to write an issue on top of some list of goals in a binder to collect dust on a shelf somewhere. We've done that before; heck, everybody's done that.
It's encouraging to see this let's-do-something-about-it approach.
It's particularly important to keep Storm Lake's situation in perspective here. Why do we have a housing shortage?
Because we have growth, something very few rural cities in the state can say. We have people wanting to come make their home here or come back here to raise their families. We have jobs being created (Tyson just announced some earlier in the same meeting), we have a desirable place to live. Not perfect, by any means, as if any place is - but a community with good schools and health care and a stable business community and two college campuses and impressive natural resources and recreation opportunities and multi-million-dollar projects being accomplished.
We have a housing shortage because people want to live here.
And that's a very, very positive thing.
Yep, we have a housing issue, a big one that needs work. And other cities would kill to have that problem, instead of houses sitting boarded up or stagnating on the real estate market for months.
Also, we have a good start to dealing with our issue.
An entire new neighborhood of attractive low-to-moderate-income townhouses has been completed, and was full virtually immediately, with a waiting list. Another housing complex is in the works next to that, with 60 units to be added.
An innovative developer is working toward a project to convert a vacant school building into a snazzy complex of market-rate apartments, which will have that site producing tax revenue for the community for the first time in close to 90 years - and it will save our school district a fortune in demolition, so that money can go into classrooms where it belongs.
Our latest big news is that the same developer plans to take on a failed condo site on the lakefront and complete it into condominiums and apartments.
The City itself has launched a new addition with room for 24 future single-family houses, and good old Habitat for Humanity keeps up its heartwarming work, putting a family or two into a volunteer-constructed-or-removated house every season.
That's well over 200 new and future homes for people created in a short time, and we need many more, and that should tell people a lot about the direction of Storm Lake.
Our city has stepped up to the plate with powerful incentive packages, creative ideas for utilizing areas that might otherwise go to waste, and invested a lot of plain hard work on the part of the city staff to find developers and make the deals work. The networking in town is also admirable - the city working with the school district on the South School project, providing lots for Habitat houses which they in turn were given by the hospital. The county too has been supportive of efforts to give up a little tax revenue in the short term to further projects fot the long term.
Our task now, as one of the council members put it at a previous meeting, is to keep the momentum moving.
It would be interesting to hear from contractors themselves.What does it take to get them out of the Des Moines suburbs and into Storm Lake? Or to help locals get started developing? How much land is needed? How many houses would a crew need to put up at one time to pay off? What kind of incentives are most attractive - utilities and infrastructure, tax abatements, forgivable loans for land?
I also suspect that somewhere along the line in this process, we may realize that Storm Lake is not an island, and the issue is larger than the city limits. People who work or study in Storm Lake may also live in Alta, Newell, Schaller, Lakeside, Lake Creek, South Shote, the rural part of the county. Storm Lake has a limited amount of land available; but pulling in representatives of these areas could add some new insights and possibilities for future relationships. I know annexation is a dirty word, but the voluntary type may be something we need to look at eventually.
We may also at some point have to address the elephant in the room - that our family income ranks rather low. How do we get jobs and benefits to the levels where people can afford housing, or be able to save and move up the housing ladder to make space available for others in the starter housing?
There's a lot to be determined here, but a start has been made, and that's often the hardest part.
Kudos to the council and the city staff for being willing to put in the work on this, and more than lip service. Anyone can say we have an issue, poor us, such a shame nothing can be done.
It takes leadership to own it and put in the time.
One thing everyone can do is their part on this momentum thing. Take pride in your property, pick up trash, volunteer where you can, talk your community up. If you don't take pride in where you live, who will?
A place with so many good things happening deserves that. Perception of a community goes a long way toward opening more doors.