By Shereen Siewert

Wausau officials this week will consider a proposal to build six single-family homes on city-owned parcels along Thomas Street, along with a possible alternative plan that aims to address concerns about affordable housing shortages in the area.

The Economic Development committee in October directed the city’s community development department to seek proposals for developing the remnant parcels, which sit on the north side of the 100 block of Thomas Street. The request resulted in a sole proposal, from Wausau-based Tyler Knudson Construction, LLC.

Knudson proposes purchasing each of the six lots from the city for a total of $45,000 and constructing homes that would sell for between $200,000 and $240,000 each. Two different styles of two-story, 1,400 square-foot homes are proposed, each with three bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths and an attached two-car garage with construction beginning in May.

The company estimates the completed construction value of the entire project at about $1,320,000 which would generate property taxes of roughly $12,800 annually based on the 2020 city tax rate, according to city documents.

But Dist. 3 Alderman Tom Kilian, who supported the idea of single-family homes along the corridor, said the price point of the newly constructed homes is out of line for the area and has not been received well by residents.

“In regard to the Thomas Street proposal, is my understanding that there are economically efficient methods and alternatives which could result in the creation of affordable single-family homes on these parcels, and that these methods have historically resulted in monthly mortgage and home costs totaling around $700,” Kilian said.

“That number is undoubtedly more in line and appropriate with area and community needs than $220,000 homes, but it has not been discussed with the public so far, from what I know. Affordability is particularly important since Wausau’s median household income has declined while our city’s housing costs continue to rise.”

Wausau Business Development Specialist Sean Fitzgerald, in a memo to the Economic Development committee, said other builders had identified potential interest in submitting a development proposal back in September. But those companies have since indicted it was improbable to develop single-family homes in the under-$180,000 range and mitigate risk of a financial loss.

Kilian said affordable housing has been a well-known issue in the city for decades with little forward progress. As an alternative, Kilian on Tuesday will offer a presentation on a potential community land trust for the corridor.

Community land trusts (CLTs) are nonprofit organizations governed by a board of residents and public representatives that provide lasting community assets and shared equity home ownership opportunities for families and communities. CLTs develop rural and urban agriculture projects, commercial spaces to serve local communities, affordable rental and cooperative housing projects, and conserve land or urban green spaces.

But the heart of their work is the creation of homes that remain permanently affordable, providing successful home ownership opportunities for generations of lower income families, according to the Grounded Solutions Network. As of 2021, there are more than 225 community land trusts across the nation.

“The worsening affordable housing shortage Wausau faces has been a concern of the community for years and, ostensibly, the local government, as well,” Kilian said. “Unfortunately, with prior administrations and councils, there was a lot more hand wringing than success. The result has been the continued erosion of local working and middle-class neighborhoods while the government heavily subsidized development projects that benefited a select few. The current council and administration now have the opportunity to do something positive on this front for the overwhelming majority of people in our town — and they should.”

According to the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development the use of community land trusts is an increasingly common strategy to ensure the availability of permanently affordable housing for residents who might otherwise be priced out of their neighborhoods.

Kilian said government officials should prioritize the needs and interests of everyday people because, “in legitimate circumstances, the people are their government.”

“As Wausonians learn more and more that there are – in fact – viable, realistic ways to satisfy some of these needs, I imagine they will increasingly expect results and success rather than inaction or poor outcomes,” Kilian said.

CLTs have the unique ability to essentially create affordable housing on a parcel in perpetuity, which results in fewer chances for displacement and gentrification. They give control and decision-making authority of land use to residents, as opposed to developers who could profit from potentially predatory schemes in low income areas. A CLT would also facilitate affordable home ownership for generations to come, Kilian said.

“In short, this is a cost-effective approach of generating and protecting affordable housing in Wausau where other methods and approaches have, to date, failed impressively,” Kilian said. “It empowers regular folks while simultaneously wresting control of planning and land use from the usual set of development players who may be much more focused on their profit margins than on the people who actually live and reside in our neighborhoods.”

The Economic Development committee will meet at 5:15 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 407 Grant St., Wausau. See the full packet for the meeting here.