Range housing woes hit home

PHOTO: Images Money, Flickr CC-BY

My kids aren’t kids anymore. In just a few years they’ll move out on their own. I remember the excitement of that time of life, but as a parent I’m struck by the enormous financial burdens they’ll face.

In 1999, our first apartment rent in Hibbing was a little over $300 a month. You can’t find many market rate places below $800 now. Rent over $1,000 is typical of Iron Range apartments. Rents over 20 years rose well above the rate of inflation and yet still remain tiny compared to Duluth, Minneapolis or any large city.

Likewise, we bought our first house — a two story, two bedroom home in Hibbing — for just under $40,000 shortly thereafter. We sold at a slight profit in 2005. New owners trashed it, but the house just sold this fall for over $80,000 after a renovation.

Across the Range, first time home buyers commonly face price tags over $100,000. Prices of $200,000 or more are pretty typical for middle class houses. Building a new house with three bedrooms can’t be done for less than $300,000. The kinds of homes you see on TV run way past half a million dollars.

These numbers would have been deal breakers for my wife and I when we got started 20 years ago, something I wrote about last year for the Minnesota Reformer. It feels like we rented the last affordable apartment, bought the last affordable starter house, and then built the last affordable family home. We talk about future generations of our family living in our house, perhaps out of necessity. Good for us that we have a house. Millions don’t.

So, why is this happening?

First, demand is changing. People want houses with modern infrastructure. That rules out many of the small 100-year-old homes in Range towns. Older people need single-level living and there are more older people living here now. These factors create huge demand for a smaller subset of homes.

In addition, supply is changing. Those inexpensive houses are rotting in place, with little available money for upgrades or even basic maintenance. The ones that do get fixed up are often turned into rental properties. Meanwhile, cost discourages the construction of new homes.

“It really stems back from the recession that we had following the foreclosure crisis in the late 2000s,” said Andrea Brennan of the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund. “We just we we stopped building for period of time and we got really far behind.”

When a red hot real estate market emerged this past year, bidding wars priced most Iron Rangers out of their own communities.

That’s why fixing our rural and small town housing problems requires solutions that go beyond the market. Communities must create incentives for builders to build and for new homebuyers to take a chance on higher prices. Old housing stock will need to be renovated. None of this comes for free.

Here we find some ideas and initial funding.

This fall, the Blandin Foundation issued a $1 million grant to the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund to improve rural housing availability in Grand Rapids and the Leech Lake reservation. The money will update older homes and apartments, fund new construction, and help people find housing, among other initiatives.

“More inclusive, broad based local wealth building, I would argue, is the best thing for communities,” said Kyle Erickson, grants program officer for the Blandin Foundation. “That’s more dollars that are going to stay in and circulate in the community that can then support small business development that’s rooted in the communities.”

More towns are turning to community land trusts to create new or improved housing stock in existing neighborhoods. In Duluth, One Roof Community Housing recently announced the completion of two new homes built onto the kind of narrow, 25-foot lots found in older neighborhoods. Builders using only the market as a guide would never consider doing this because the return on investment is too low. Finding a way around this barrier revitalizes neighborhoods and creates the kind of affordable housing that people want.

We’ve certainly got no shortage of vacant 25- and 50-foot lots in Iron Range communities. Young people starting in their careers and new residents need those options. Otherwise, they’ll go elsewhere. Worse yet, they might be stuck renting their whole lives — a valid choice for some, but not one that builds wealth in a small community.

“It’s not just a housing issue,” said Brennan. “It’s an employment issue, it’s a labor issue.”

A complex problem like housing requires a robust but flexible response. We can’t build everyone a house, but we can build houses. We can’t put a sleek new apartment tower in every small town, but we can repurpose old buildings to create new housing opportunities.

Towns that learn how to use tools like strategic zoning law changes and tax abatement programs will have an advantage. Funding sources like Iron Range Resources and the Blandin Foundation also give our region an edge.

You need an engaged public sector to partner with the private sector and the nonprofit sector to make this stuff happen,” said Erickson.

None of these efforts will produce huge results in six months. But that’s not the point. There is at least hope that students in our high schools and community colleges might experience measured improvement by the time they need housing.

That’s the kind of hope we need to bring home.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. Elanne Palcich says

    Aaron–your articles always hit the nail on the head.

  2. Mike Denino says

    Really well written.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.