Iron Range’s 100-year housing woes


One of the most critical problems facing Iron Range communities is the age and aesthetic appeal of our towns. The downtowns present one particular problem. The housing stock presents another.

My father, who moved to the Twin Cities area almost 20 years ago, often talks about his trips to visit us. He drives through the same Mesabi Range communities he knew as a kid, but each time they look a little rougher. It’s not just an odd house that needs some TLC, it can be an entire neighborhood, and often the neighborhood that faces major streets and roadways.

Like many Iron Range couples, my wife and I lived in an small house built during the mining boom of the early 20th Century when we first got married. Ours was in pretty good shape and we remodeled when we lived there.

Nevertheless, the houses around us were turning over constantly as longtime residents died or moved, replaced by people who would only stay a year or two. The value of the homes actually started to drop during this time. The people who bought our house when we moved out to the country didn’t take very good care of it, and a house-flipping company had to come in and fix it up again.

This isn’t just one neighborhood, it’s happening all over the Range. And you can get a pretty good idea of what’s going on from story “Housing Future Critical for Range cities” by Cole Perry, a new reporter for the Hibbing Daily Tribune that ran on Nov. 13, 2016.

Perry explains how above average poverty rates and an aging population feed into the Iron Range’s persistent housing issues:

And with this begins a cycle.

Andy Hubley, director of the Regional Planning Division of the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission (ARDC), a regional development organization serving seven counties in Northeast Minnesota, explained that like humans, there is a life cycle to housing.

“Older community members often seek to remain in their homes as long as they are physically able. During this time, due to abilities and budgets, home maintenance is put off and the house deteriorates to some degree,” he said. “When the older resident is no longer in the home, an unmaintained home is put on the market. This house may not attract younger families and is often put on the rental market and the maintenance continues to be delayed.”

These old, unmaintained homes can “hurt the overall aesthetic of the community and make it more difficult to attract new businesses and residents,“ Hubley added.

One way an Iron Range town differs from a typical small town is that most of the housing stock was installed almost all at once, within a 20-year window in the early 20th Century. Nearly all of the core town houses now approach 100 years old.

However, the community is dramatically different — both in economic and demographic composition. The middle class wants nicer homes, often in the country, while the neighborhoods are left to the elderly and lower income people.

We do miss elements of living in town sometimes, particularly as our kids get involved in school activities. And we definitely miss the mortgage payments — just $350 a month.

Therein lies the value of addressing Iron Range housing stock. Quite literally, the value. As the economic squeeze of the middle class continues (never mind the election results), people will seek affordable options. Iron Range communities, if they embrace economic diversification, could be poised for success.

That is, if they can keep their houses standing. Or understand that some houses will need to come down to protect the value of neighborhoods.

At this point in Range economic history, nothing is more important that creating a sense of hope and possibility in our communities. Sure, it bolsters the spirits of our people, but it’s also a welcoming signal to the businesses and entrepreneurs we need to leap into a new economy.


  1. Minnesota’s Range communities are excellent values for retirement. Generally a retiree is on a relatively or absolutely fixed income. Inexpensive housing is a major plus. A lot of living expenses are also more reasonable. Where we live we definitely pay less for groceries than we did at our last active duty location. And retiring couples don’t need large houses, generally. I’m not sure how you could make a pitch for this towards the retirement age population. And to an extent it is already in place, I know the retiree percentage of the population locally is well above the norm.

  2. Not everything was built 100 years ago. It’s interesting to coordinate the housing stock with the boom times. 20’s when most of Hibbing was moved or rebuilt, all the garage apartments of the 40’s and 50’s, Greenhaven, Pill Hill, and the area around Lincoln School in the mid 50’s, all the stalled housing developments and rural new homes without farms of the late 70’s, and very little since as the economic base declined. New houses get built when times are good.

  3. LifeLongRanger says

    The Median Iron Range Income is around $30,000 a year and that’s about as low as the poorest state in the country. Most people around here don’t even have enough money to pay for their basic living expenses let alone fix and build homes. Not many people take pride in ownership anymore because they just get punished with higher taxes. Older folks are the only ones pumping money into houses and most businesses because almost all young people are in debt, jobless, and broke. It’s also harder than ever to get a loan thanks to the engineered housing crisis of 2008. It’s an unfortunate situation which by the looks of it isn’t going to change anytime soon. Oh how the Range has changed since it’s glory days. Now it’s seeing it’s poorest days! Really Really Sad what has happened here!

  4. Garrett Orazem says

    I see you didn’t mention the 25-foot lots. Hibbing had a second start, but a lot of the range towns have tiny lots. I lived in one where a ladder couldn’t lie flat on the ground between houses. Nice neighbors, though…

    • Sorry if off-topic, but does anyone know how those houses (which are so close together) were sided, painted, or trimmed? I have always wondered! It seems like some of the spaces are too small to swing a hammer or use a ladder.

  5. I lived on a 25-foot lot in Hibbing and had a neighbor whose house was one foot from mine. What I knew of the neighborhood’s history was that all the houses were built around the same time when Hibbing moved to the Alice Location. It would seem that they built the house in a row. They would have only had to deal with the confined space for every other house. Our neighbor had steel siding while we were stucco. I did notice that the stucco on the neighbor side appeared to have the original coat of paint while the rest of the house had a fresher coat. Tight quarters, but it wasn’t so bad. I could mow and trim my lawn in 15 minutes.

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