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Why can’t people afford to live in Chisago County?

Think affordable housing is a city problem? Meet Chisago County.

Think affordable housing is a city problem? Meet Chisago County. Star Tribune

Most Chisago County residents probably don’t see their area as a particularly difficult place to live and work. It’s a slice of country living just 45 miles from the Twin Cities.

Residents like to boat and canoe, and maybe even enjoy a glass of a vintage made from the cold-hardy Chisago grape. Its median household income is a little over $70,000 -- a touch less than the metro average.

So why can’t its businesses seem to find anyone to hire? It’s because if you work in Chisago, you probably don’t earn enough to live there.

A recent report from the Minnesota Housing Partnership found that it’s home to arguably the largest gap between the average hourly wage ($8.46) and the wage necessary to rent a market-rate two-bedroom apartment ($20.88). Essentially, you would need about two-and-a-half full-time jobs to pay the rent.

Chisago recently did its own study, finding that rent is somewhere between $500 and $749 a month. But nearly half of its renters pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs, the general benchmark for affordability. That percentage rises to 71 percent of renters making less than $35,000.

There are a few reasons for this. Housing and Redevelopment Authority Director Nancy Hoffman says a lot of Chisago residents commute to the Twin Cities, since local businesses pay about 35 percent less than their metro counterparts. Driving is so essential to thriving in Chisago that rising gas prices can cause people to move. If you can’t pay to commute, you have to settle for Chisago wages.

Chisago was also hit particularly hard during the recession -- when wages went down and rent kept climbing -- and hasn’t totally bounced back. The average number of new housing permits from 2000 to 2007 was about 387 units per year. That sank to 48 from 2008 to 2012, and it’s now sitting around 178.

It’s easy to say that a lack of affordable housing has an easy solution: more affordable housing. Hoffman says that’s easier said than done.

“To get a housing developer to do a project is a little bit tough up here,” she says. Building an apartment complex in Chisago costs the same as building one in White Bear Lake, but tenants can’t pay the same rent. There would “almost have to be” a subsidy to make the investment worth it.

Chisago is an example of a crisis that is happening everywhere in Minnesota. While rents have been rising -- wages, not so much. Semi-rural places like Chisago are no exception. Even so, people -- even semi-rural legislators -- tend to think of the housing crisis as a Twin Cities problem.

“Even for policymakers in communities outside the metro, housing hasn’t been an issue,” says Minnesota Housing Partnership Research Director Carolyn Sczczepanski.

If this is ever going to get better, Sczczpanski says Minnesota will have to stop thinking of housing as a commodity -- something the market will sort out on its own. It will have to treat it like transportation and education: as an investment in the public good.

If we don’t, we may look around one day and find no one left to invest in.