Damakant Jayshi

Identifying affordable housing as a major challenge, a housing study of eight communities in north central Wisconsin including Wausau suggests building housing of all types, providing financial assistance to low-income households and making changes to zoning codes, among other recommendations.

The study, prepared by the North Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission for the communities in the Wausau Metropolitan Area and Marathon County, was presented at the regular meeting of Marathon County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. Cities of Wausau and Schofield, Town of Rib Mountain and Villages of Kronenwetter, Maine, Marathon City, Rothschild, and Weston participated in the housing assessment in 2022.

As big takeaways from the study, said Sam Wessel, senior planner at NCWRPC, the metropolitan areas need all types of housing.

“Our population is growing and our median age is getting older and older than the state average,” he said, adding that aging population is growing in other states too.

When Marathon County Board Chair Kurt Gibbs asked Wessel to identify the biggest barrier to affordable housing in the county, the NCWRPC planner pointed to rising construction costs and a continued focus on high-end housing.

“The cost of building it – not only the construction costs for the infrastructure as serving it,” Wessel said. “That’s why you see more proposals for higher-end housing, because you have thicker margins to work with.”

Wessel said it is very hard to produce the lowest-income housing without some sort of financial assistance.

The housing assessment also said the City of Wausau, which has committed millions of dollars toward high-end housing in recent years, has relatively high property taxes, and faces the additional challenge of homelessness.

Among the recommendations are building a variety of housing at all prices to reduce competition in the middle-income housing sector. Municipalities need to amend zoning ordinances to allow for more housing options and to explore creative financing for new housing development to reduce construction costs, the study recommended.

The study, relying on census data, found there is a shortage of housing for low- and high-income earners in the region, putting pressure on middle-income housing as people of all income levels competed for those units. At the lower end, price ranges were under $500 to rent or under $125,000 to purchase; and over $1,250 per month and over $400,000 to purchase for those with higher income levels. Single-family homes and units for rent that cost no more than 30% of household income were the most sought-after housing. The middle-income housing range was about $125,000-$400,000 to purchase, or $500-$1,250 per month to rent.

Alarmingly, an estimated 24 percent of households spent between 30 and 50 percent of their income on housing in 2020, making them cost-burdened. An additional 9% of households spent over 50% of their income on housing, making them severely cost burdened. Both the cost burdened and severely cost burdened owners and renters are more likely to be low-income.

People who participated in the study said they were worried about increasing costs related to construction, labor, and land. These costs increased by about 30 percent in the past two years. To compound the problem, existing housing prices increased significantly in the past decade.