Heitkamp talks housing

Federal housing programs need to be more flexible if they are going to help create more affordable housing in western North Dakota, area community and housing officials said at a forum in Minot Thursday.

Convenience store workers who make too much money to get housing assistance and affordable housing developments stymied by nearby trains that are a couple of decibels too loud are signs that federal program rules need fixing, they said.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., held the housing forum in Minot Thursday to hear about issues and potential solutions in Ward County and discover what role the federal government might play in ensuring affordable housing.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., is interested in the housing issues as well and has been attending some of the forums that Heitkamp is holding across the state. He was unable to attend the forum in Minot Thursday.

Heitkamp said activities are under way to index the federal and state programs available for housing assistance and determine why some of the programs may not be working as intended.

Federal and state agency officials at the forum said federal eligibility rules for some programs don’t always fit in North Dakota, especially in the western part of the state because of the shortage of housing inventory and the higher wages.

“If we get our loan limit raised or income limit raised, we are going to be able to help more people with the programs,” said Alisa Dahl, area director with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program.

The Minot Housing Authority hasn’t been able to fully use its rent subsidy program because of lack of affordable housing. Since federal voucher allocation is based on past use, the housing authority is finding that its allocation is declining as a result. The number of vouchers has dropped from about 650 before the 2011 flood to around 425 today, said housing authority director Tom Pearson.

Pearson said legislation has been proposed to adjust the rules so that communities that lose affordable housing due to disasters aren’t penalized in the subsidy program.

Another problem is that because of the inflation in oil country, he said, the housing authority has had to turn away entry-level workers whose incomes exceed federal restrictions, including convenience store employees in Mountrail County.

Cindy Hemphill, Minot city finance director, said flood-impacted residents are being disqualified from housing rehabilitation through the city’s Community Development Block Grant program because of federal rules regarding how they spent their Federal Emergency Management assistance. The rules state that the money or an equivalent amount must go into home repair. The city would like federal rules to bend for people who spent their FEMA money on medicines or other necessities and don’t have the funds to put into home repair, she said.

“If we can document it and we can make a case for it, HUD has indicated to us that they are willing to discuss it,” Hemphill said.

Burlington is working with Souris Basin Planning Council on an affordable housing development.

Jason Zimmerman with SBPC said the location near a railroad track measured a couple of decibels over HUD’s noise limit, and the cost of mitigating the noise would kill the project. The hope is to improve the modeling to see if the actual sound level might be lower than originally tested due to environmental features of the area, he said.

Berthold Mayor Alan Lee said the biggest hindrance to housing development in his city is lack of funding to expand the lagoon system. A housing development would have to be extremely large to affordably spread the cost of expanding the lagoon, he said. The city doesn’t want to take on the debt to expand the lagoon, either.

Heitkamp said housing needs to be a priority in North Dakota.

“I am convinced that if we don’t solve this problem, the next looming crisis is a worker shortage,” Heitkamp said, citing the instability of relying on temporary, out-of-state workers. “How do we get them to stay here? Because when the economy picks up at home, they are not going to be here. This is not just taking care of today’s needs. This is about making sure we have a workforce for tomorrow.”