With a regional task force on housing affordability nearing its finale, Eau Claire leaders want to see what that group comes up with before crafting a strategy to meet the city’s needs.
Eau Claire is hoping some of the answers to its questions about the need for more housing in the city will be addressed by the task force that began its work in late June and is expected to make its final report next month.
“There’s going to be some very tangible things coming out of that task force,” City Manager Dale Peters said. “It’s prudent to wait and see what this task force comes up with and build off of that.”
The Chippewa Valley Housing Task Force, which is led by Eau Claire community director Scott Allen and Altoona city planner Joshua Clements, includes volunteers from the public and private sector that have been researching the region’s housing shortage.
Allen gave a taste of that group’s findings during a Tuesday evening Eau Claire City Council work session at the county courthouse, 721 Oxford Ave.
Allen quoted a multiple studies comparing Eau Claire’s average wages to the rest of the state. The numbers weren’t always the same, but they showed the same phenomenon — Eau Claire residents make less than Wisconsin’s average.
“The point remains our wages are lower, but our housing costs are not radically different,” Allen said.
Allen brought early results of an analysis showing shortages for single-family home price categories in the Eau Claire area corresponding to income brackets that could afford them.
“We’re seeing actually a number of households in the upper income brackets — over $75,000 a year — with a low inventory available to them,” he said. “But we’re seeing the same on the other end of bell curve.”
Allen then pointed to the end of the chart showing a shortage of homes priced around $80,000 that people in lower income brackets could afford.
But new homes being built in Eau Claire are mostly valued at more than $250,000.
“We’re seeing the greatest expansion of housing construction on the upper end,” Allen said.
The average new single-family home — including twin homes — goes for $265,000 now, said Councilman Terry Weld, an Eau Claire real estate agent.
“That number will continue to rise,” he said, noting the rising cost of labor as local builders have even gone across state lines to get tradesmen to finish jobs.
Weld said first-time homebuyers in the area had been buying $125,000 houses a few years ago, but those prices have gone up to $150,000 and even $175,000 as the market has heated up lately.
“The inventory is a huge driver for what’s going on in our market, in terms of value,” Weld said.
He attributed the affordable housing shortage, which is a problem in many communities, to builders ceasing to build spec homes — those made without a buyer lined up — in 2008 after the last housing crisis.
Peters told the council the city has limited resources and abilities to address affordable housing.
“We’re not going to be able to do every initiative we might want to do,” he said.
So he said Eau Claire will need its strategy to identify the biggest, most important gaps in the housing market and address those.
Council members have mentioned the potential to lower or excuse building permit fees as a potential incentive for companies to build affordable housing. At Tuesday’s work session, elected leaders lobbed a few other ideas that could help address housing shortages.
Councilwoman Kate Beaton said the city may consider changing its parking requirements for apartment buildings in certain areas, making it more affordable to build them.
Councilman Jeremy Gragert also alluded to creating more flexibility in the city’s zoning codes so people with unused bedrooms or portions of their homes could rent them out. He likened the idea to “carpooling” the city’s existing housing stock.
Whatever the city comes up with, Peters said that it will need to be something that private developers can work with.
“The ability to work with the development community is very important in this,” he said.
Allen, who started working for Eau Claire this summer, researched the city’s recent history of attempting to address housing affordability.
He found mention of a need for lower-cost housing and specifically rental units with more than two bedrooms in the city’s 2005 comprehensive plan. But outside of the work of the Eau Claire Housing Authority, Allen said, the city’s efforts didn’t seem to go much farther than writing goals into plans.
“To be honest not much was done between 2005 and 2015 on that affordable housing objective,” he said.
In recognition of the lack of affordable housing becoming a growing problem in Eau Claire, the City Council hosted a listening session in late September, which drew a large crowd of people who spoke about the topic.
While the city hasn’t created its own definition for affordable housing, many agencies define households as cost-burdened if they pay more than 30 percent of their income on mortgage or rent payments, utilities and taxes.
“Lacking any other definition, that’s a good place to start,” Allen said.
Increases to Eau Claire’s city-issued permits, licenses and fees were approved after a month of delays.
Over concerns that raising building permits could affect housing affordability, the City Council had delayed a decision in mid-November but voted 10-0 Tuesday to approve the fee changes as they were originally presented.
“I don’t think, in my opinion, they would affect housing prices that much,” Councilman David Strobel said.
Costs of building and plumbing permits increase under the approved fee schedule, but city staff cited two examples where they would only go up around 3 percent.
A 1,824-square-foot home with a standard garage built this year had $1,377 in fees for the numerous permits it needed from the city, which would increase a total of $39 next year. A nearly 3,000-square-foot home with large garage had $1,675 in permit costs, which would be $59 higher under 2019’s fee schedule.
Though the increased fees were approved, city leaders are discussing the potential for a waiver program for projects deemed to be “affordable housing.”
City finance director Jay Winzenz said the city would need to establish a clear rationale for such a program and create specific criteria for building projects that show a public benefit to earn an exception to fees that other new homes would pay in full.
Councilwomen Catherine Emmanuelle and Jill Christopherson both noted the city is currently studying the issue of affordable housing and results of that research would be needed to craft policy. Emmanuelle indicated a desire to move quickly on affordable housing policies, urging the city to draft legislation early next year.
In addition to building permits, other fees rising next year include public pool admission, ambulance bills, renting park pavilions and health inspections for certain businesses.
Also during the council’s regular Tuesday evening:
• Extending the city’s contract for employee health insurance into 2020 with Group Health Cooperative of Eau Claire was approved in a 10-0 vote. The local insurance cooperative agreed to cap premium increases by 4 percent in 2019 and 2020.
• The Eau Claire YMCA signed a five-year agreement to use the city’s Fairfax Park Pool for its swim team’s summer practices and swim meets. The YMCA will pay $10,100 annually for the first two years and $10,700 yearly for the remaining years of the contract.
• Changes to city regulations of pawnbrokers and second-hand stores that sell jewelry or other goods were approved in a 10-0 council vote. The city also signed a three-year contract with Plano, Texas-based LeadsOnline to provide Eau Claire’s online pawn record-keeping system, replacing 14 years of using Minneapolis-based Automated Pawn System.
• A rezoning request to allow the former fire station at 559 N. Hastings Way to be turned into a community TV studio and offices for Valley Media Works was approved in a 10-0 council vote.
• A general plan and zoning for Banbury Place, 800 Wisconsin St., were changed by a 10-0 council vote to allow the mixed-use development to potentially turn part of its Building 17 warehouse into multi-family housing.