Duluth grapples with tight housing supply

Published April 1, 1992  | April 1992 issue

With a 1.5 percent residential vacancy rate and a growing work force, the city of Duluth faces the challenge of providing enough affordable housing to meet changing needs.

The current press for more housing is a complete turnaround from the mid-1980s. In 1984 only 23 housing units were built; in 1988 the total rose to 86. But in 1991 construction permits were issued for 234 units, and that number is expected to increase in 1992.

Several explanations exist for the recent housing crunch. Duluth has grown as a regional medical center, and medical facility expansion has taken out housing units at the same time staff has increased, says Rick Ball, manager of the city's Community Development and Housing Division. A redevelopment project in West Duluth has affected the housing supply in that neighborhood. And, according to Jackie Sathers of J.S. Realty, "The quality of life is good, and people are choosing to stay here."

While replacement units are going into the medical center neighborhood downtown and in West Duluth, there is still a need for family housing at all income levels, Ball says.

And once the state finalizes an $838 million aid package to Northwest Airlines this spring, construction will begin on a maintenance facility in Duluth. Most construction workers will be local, Ball says, and the city is not expecting a large influx of temporary workers. "But an influx of any kind of workers is a burden on the housing market," he adds. When the facility's first phase opens in fall 1993, 250 people will be hired, and by 1996 about 1,200 workers will be employed.

To keep up with current needs and to anticipate housing demands created by the Northwest project, the city is working on creative solutions. The city's economic development authority created a financial assistance program that has stimulated housing development projects to the tune of over 200 units and $14 million worth of investment, Ball says. The city is also looking at converting buildings on publicly owned land, like vacant schools and industrial buildings, into new housing units.

But the housing crunch doesn't stop at the city limits. Northwest will also build a maintenance facility in Hibbing, about 75 miles northwest of Duluth, that would employ about 300 people by 1997. Ball expects population growth and new housing development on the western edge of Duluth as a result of that operation. A regional effort to maintain enough housing opportunities is essential, Ball says.

Kathy Cobb