When it comes to housing in Rice County, local leaders agree: it's neither affordable nor available.
Members of U.S. Sen. Tina Smith's staff headed to Faribault on Tuesday as part of a statewide listening tour on the topic of affordable housing. It's a widespread problem across the state — and it's particularly serious in Rice County, where a significant portion of renters spend more than half their monthly income on housing.
A major driver of these issues is the mismatch between market prices and income. Faribault has the third-most expensive rental market in the state (after the metro area and Rochester), but is ranked lower for income, according to Bree Maki, Smith's southern Minnesota outreach director.
Natalia Marchan, Rice County Growing Up Healthy coordinator, recalled her own struggle five years ago to find an apartment as a single woman. To pay her $600 rent, she had to work three jobs, she said.
For families with children, it can be even more difficult. Rice County has six times the state average of households with more than 10 people, according to Joy Watson, Rice County Housing director. Market rates for a four- to five-bedroom rental house can reach $1,600 a month, which is out of reach for many low-income families.
"The bigger the family, the less selection they have and the less quality there is in housing stock. It really creates a hardship for a lot of our families," said Watson.
And even when families can afford what's on the market, they still have to contend with limited availability. Several attendees reported seeing homes go up for sale — or selling their own homes — and receiving several offers above asking price within 24 hours.
Jenny Larson, executive director of Three Rivers Community Action, said she had heard from families who want to seek less expensive housing but are reluctant to move their children out of the school district, especially in Northfield. Even higher-earning families may have no choice, she said.
"If somebody who is making $80,000 can't live in Northfield, then what is someone who makes $20,000 supposed to do?" asked Larson.
Some low-income families are eligible to seek housing vouchers through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. People may wait years for approval — and then discover that some landlords won't accept the vouchers due to the stigma associated with public assistance programs and the perception that these renters will cause more problems than others. Attendees also reported landlords being reluctant to rent to voucher holders due to the program's inspection requirements, though these requirements call for basic health and safety standards (such as working smoke detectors).
For places that do accept public assistance, like Prairiewood Townhomes of Faribault, the waiting list can be 200 people long.
Dayna Norvold, executive director of Rice County Habitat for Humanity, said it's a challenge to find households that qualify for her programs, since many families in need either don't have enough income to sustain a mortgage long-term, or financial disorganization disqualifies them. Norvold suggested financial education programs for middle and high school students to prepare students for potential future home ownership.
"I think we need some more education way far ahead, but we've also got to do some things at a local level — but support it federally — to get people out of the financial mess," said Norvold.
Participants also discussed the side effects of a lack of available housing. It prevents businesses from expanding, since many workers don't want long commutes or lack transportation altogether. If families leave the area, school districts may lose funding due to decreased enrollment. People facing domestic violence may stay in unsafe situations because they can't afford to move out.
These concerns echoed what Smith's staffers had heard across the area — Rice County isn't alone in these struggles, they said. Participants called for collaboration between city, state and the federal government, along with local nonprofits, shelters and landlords, to seek solutions.
"These are serious and complicated issues that keep people from living where they want to," said Larson.