Rebecca* had been living with her husband and children for over five years at the same Osceola residence when, earlier in 2019, she received a notice of termination of tenancy. Over the previous year, mold was a common problem for the household, and had even spread to the furnace. A repair tech advised that the furnace should be replaced, but that never happened.
“Instead of running a furnace with mold, since we had already been facing multiple issues of cleaning it up, I was just going to run space heaters,” she said.
The heaters were set up in the living room, where the family of six camped out through the winter. Rebecca believed that the eviction notice came partially as a result of a Child Protective Service (CPS) report after her son told his guidance counselor about the lack of heat.
“I say that the termination was definitely a good thing,” Rebecca admitted. “It allowed the homeowner to go in there and get things done that you can’t do when you’ve got six people in there.”
After vacating the premises, the family spent a few weeks camping on Rebecca’s grandmother’s lawn, but had to quickly seek other housing options due to legal restrictions on camping for long periods of time.
They turned to Northwoods Shelters, and were placed in temporary housing in Luck. While there, they cannot have guests, drink alcohol or go out past 7:30 at night, although an exception to the curfew was made for Rebecca’s husband due to his work schedule.
Rebecca’s children receive federally-mandated transportation from Luck to Osceola schools, and although she considered transferring them to the Luck school district, she wanted to give them the stability she did not have in her youth, having to move around from place to place. With one child chronically ill, she fears what the colder weather may bring.
“Prior to the furnace being moldy, I had been looking [for new housing], just because I was sick of cleaning up mold messes from walls,” Rebecca said. But, “the moment there is a three-bedroom [house] available anywhere, there are like 10 people [wanting it].”
Marc Gilker of St. Croix Falls can confirm the competition. He and his wife once planned to sell their house and move to Osceola. After checking out a rental home that he had found through a Facebook group, Gilker said the landlord offered him tenancy on the spot.
“I said, ‘I need to talk to my wife’,” Gilker said. “Then literally [the landlord] called me the next day and said, we offered it to somebody else.” After this loss, Gilker’s family decided against selling their house after all.
Lisa Jensen, the front office and payroll coordinator for Express Employment Professionals, has heard numerous stories of homelessness and housing insecurity from job-seekers.
“This summer we had one gentleman come in, and he let us know that he was without housing,” Jensen said. “He had just lost his job at a company in Dresser.”
To assist the man, Jensen brought in a phone pad and General Manager Charity Mathis offered a tent. Others contributed pillows and blankets, and the man sought shelter at Interstate Park’s campgrounds.
One couple Express Employment had helped had to move to Cumberland, as they could not find housing for two that they could afford in Polk County. Another family, consisting of a man, a pregnant woman and a child, had to leave their Centuria apartment after months of unpaid bills.
While the woman and child sought shelter with relatives, the man lived out of his truck while the family searched for more permanent housing, as his background of a sex crime disqualified him from many options. Jensen has considered purchasing an empty Victorian house in St. Croix Falls to provide shelter for those who come seeking help, but said she was worried about people doing drugs.
“There are places to rent that are supposed to be low-income, but the rent is so high that somebody making 12 or 13 dollars an hour, they’re not able to afford [it],” Mathis said. “It’s always been a small whisper that affordable housing has been tough, but I feel like right now, for some reason, those whispers are turning into actual talk.”
Vince Netherland, Director of the Polk County Economic Development Corporation, elaborated what that meant in the context of his work.
“The expansion of the Twin Cities is increasing the demand for housing here in Polk County. As it gets closer and closer, many young families are looking for a more relaxed lifestyle,” Netherland said. “The cost of living is less. The recreation is unparalleled, when you consider the lakes and the river. People crave that type of environment, but they also want to be close to the Cities.”
Nine thousand people commute from Polk County every day for jobs elsewhere, while a slightly smaller figure represents those commuting into the county.
“Some of the folks [that commute out] have great jobs [elsewhere], but they want to live here. A lot of them don’t know of all the jobs that are available here in Polk County,” Netherland said. “Once they realize that the type of job they want is here, they’ll stay here… if you go to any of the plants or the factories here in Osceola, they’ll tell you they have people commuting from Minnesota, from St. Croix County, from Barron County, and some will tell you ‘if I could find an affordable house here, I’d move here.’”
A 2016 study of housing needs in Amery, conducted by Management Analyst David C. Chanski and sponsored by the Amery Economic Development Corporation, found that although Polk County’s population had declined by 1% between 2010 and 2014, Amery was projected to grow nearly 15 percent by 2030.
If this figure proves accurate, the city would require 209 new housing units to accommodate 444 people. At the time of the study, Amery had a 0% vacancy rate. A preview of a 2019 study in neighboring Barron County, meanwhile, found an increase of around 500 jobs in the county over the past two years, correlating to the need for about 170 new homes and 118 new apartment units.
Like Amery in 2016, the City of Barron had a 0% vacancy rate three months ago. The types of homes that workers desired, according to a Barron County Economic Development Corporation survey, were not compatible with builders’ budgets.
“[Netherland] wants to keep people local, keep jobs local, and… doing that, I think, comes hand-in-hand with housing,” Mathis said. “If you find a house near the job that you’re working at every single day, it’s only a matter of time before you’re sick of the commute and you move.”
*Name changed to protect privacy