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The Journal’s new reporter Hannah Olson celebrates receiving her first piece of mail at her International Falls home. The Owatonna, Minn., native said when looking for housing options in International Falls, there were few places that met her needs. While her new home is slightly larger than she anticipated, she laughed, explaining she was still able to fill two bedrooms.

When Hannah Olson accepted at job at The Journal, she was excited to move out of her parents basement and start a new chapter in her life.

However, when she started looking for housing in Borderland, the options that fit her needs were limited. For awhile, she was worried it would affect the employment offer.

“I finally found something, but it’s a little bigger than I wanted,” the new reporter said.

Olson – and The Journal – got lucky. She was able to find a place to live and fulfill a nearly four-month employment vacancy.

Others aren’t as fortunate.

Allison O’Hara, director of operations at Northland Counseling Center, said housing is often cited as a barrier for applicants looking to relocate to Borderland.

“Several of our clinicians are from other areas so we have seen this time and time again for people,” she said. “Finding suitable housing options for professionals who may be moving with a family, has been a consistent challenge. Many prefer to rent initially before purchasing a home as they are not familiar with the area and they struggle to identify reliable rental properties from a distance... Last month a candidate withdrew his application over concerns related to housing.”

As the counseling center expands its services and does more hiring, the company’s CEO Chris Jenkins said it’s often the higher paid professional staff who are willing to move for a position. When housing is the reason a qualified applicant turns down an employment offer, it impacts more than just the company they were willing to work for.

“It also has a negative impact on the community when the individual is not able to move and start spending their resources at our local businesses,” he said.

Rainy Lake Medical Center is in the same boat.

CEO Robb Pastor told The Journal this week the facility lost the opportunity to add a young employee to its team due to housing issues.

“I truly believe that we need some real solutions, if we’re going to continue to try to attract young professionals and families to our area,” he said.

Pastor and his family have also experienced local housing shortage issues personally.

When relocating to International Falls from Wisconsin last September, the family of four was unable to find housing that fit their needs.

“We didn’t want to settle,” he said. “But we needed to be out of our rental June 1, and had nowhere to go... With two young children, it got to be concerning.”

After looking at more than 30 houses, the Pastors finally have a place they call home following a 10-month hunt. The situation was exhausting and Pastor said he sympathizes with others struggling to find housing.

“It’s frustrating to say the least,” he said. “We need a developer who wants to invest in this area.”

Pushing away

The lack of housing options in Koochiching County is not only impacting people and families who want to relocate to the area, it’s also pushing locals away.

Liz and Dick Forsythe, lifelong residents of International Falls, recently moved out of the area after struggling to find single level, maintenance-free housing in International Falls.

“After much research spanning at least two years... we opted to purchase a unit in a cooperative building in St. Cloud,” Liz told The Journal.

She reached out to the newspaper shortly after the July 24 edition featured a story about the housing shortage. Reading about the issue inspired her to share her story, noting it was a difficult decision to leave the people and area the couple loves.

“The lack of alternative housing needed as our local population ages out of their homes will force this decision on many others in our age group,” she said. “In fact, friends of ours just relocated to Plymouth, Minn., (last) week, while others have been, or are beginning their search in other locations. This exodus, along with the potential of younger people not moving to our area because they cannot find housing, will subsequently diminish the tax base in Koochiching County exacerbating the downward spiral we find ourselves in.”

Searching for solutions

The housing shortage isn’t falling on deaf ears. Several community members are working to identify solutions to alleviate portions of the issue.

One project gaining momentum is transforming the Alexander Baker School building into multi-family housing with 16-18 units.

The boards of Backus Community Center and KOOTASCA have signed a joint resolution to work toward the adaptive reuse of the AB School for affordable housing and to bring KOOTASCA’s anti-poverty programming, community services and Head Start classrooms to the first floor and affordable housing to the second and third floors.

“There is a real need for quality, affordable housing in International Falls,” Ward Merrill, executive director of Backus Community Center, told The Journal. “There’s also a need for quality homes for our middle-to-upper income community members. We hear time and time again that people turn down jobs in our area because they can’t find good homes.”

The AB project is in the early stages, and will need to jump over several hurdles because of its historic status, but Merrill said the goal is to have grant applications submitted to Minnesota Housing by next June.

“We’re told we have a really solid project here,” he said. “Minnesota Housing Partnership works with communities to research housing needs and develop projects. They wouldn’t be working with us here in International Falls if they didn’t see a need or didn’t see the potential and the possibility of bringing this all to fruition.”

In addition to the Backus and KOOTASCA boards working on the AB project, the Koochiching County Housing Collaborative made up of motivated community members and officials, meets regularly to analyze the housing shortage.

“It’s a good group,” said Paul Nevanen, director of the Koochiching Economic Development Authority. “Housing touches everybody. It’s about workforce, it’s about community development, it’s about senior housing, it’s families starting homes, it touches on affordable housing and the list goes on.”

The collaborative took action and secured funding for a housing study done on the area. Nevanen said the study confirmed there’s a lack of housing across the board, and action needs to be taken.

Even though there are some solutions identified, the issue won’t resolve itself overnight, and the interim continues to create frustrations.

“When trying to hire qualified staff, (finding housing) is an extra layer of complexity that we wished was less of an issue,” O’Hara said. “Our remote location brings its own challenges for recruitment, we’d prefer not to have more hurdles for incoming employees. The hiring process is a significant investment for an agency and an applicant, and it’s frustrating when the last piece of the puzzle doesn’t get put into place.”

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