Collaboration helps plug housing shortage in western Wisconsin
Bringing affordable housing to small towns
River Falls is known for its historic Main Street and its arts and cultural events, its rugged bike trails, and trout fishing in the Kinnickinnic River—but one thing the city of nearly 17,000 falls short on is housing.
A 2018 study found that River Falls—about 30 minutes east of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area—would need more than 1,500 new housing units by 2030, including at least 400 units of subsidized housing. River Falls’ population was rapidly expanding, gaining nearly 20% more residents from 2000 to 2010 and another 4% from 2010 to 2017.
“We needed workforce housing. It’s very hard for people to find housing, and hard to be able to afford to live here,” said Peter Kilde, executive director of the West Central Wisconsin Community Action Agency (West CAP). The median income was $76,000 in the 13-county area and less than that in River Falls itself, the study said.
Teaming up for green, affordable apartments
West CAP took on the housing challenge, teaming with Gerrard Corporation, a family-owned development group based in La Crosse. Their goal: Build a 50-unit apartment building in downtown River Falls with affordable rents and load it with energy-saving features. They began construction of the two-story, U-shaped structure in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic was unfolding, and a year later, 1300 Residences opened.
Ten of the units are for people who earn only 30% of the area’s $76,000 median income, 20 apartments are set aside for people earning 50% of the median income, and the rest are for those who earn 60-80% of the median income.
“It’s on Main Street, near the campus and the business area, so it’s walkable. The city reduced the speed limit in front of the building and put up a bus stop … even though we don’t have any buses yet,” Kilde said.
The project really “breaks ground” in its energy savings, Kilde says. Its roof is covered with solar panels; its walls are filled with high insulation materials; and its heat pump system runs on ambient energy collected from the air. “About 70% of the energy used is developed right there on that small site,” Kilde says. Residents do not have electricity or natural gas bills to pay. “That means a lot to those on a fixed income,” he says.
The $11.5 million development depended on a combination of loans and tax incentives from state and federal sources, Kilde says. All of the building’s apartments are occupied, and there’s a waiting list for future vacancies.
Expanding to nearby communities
Kilde is hoping that the River Falls project serves as a model for more affordable housing around the state. West CAP and Gerrard also teamed up to build the 50-unit Beebe Lofts apartments for residents age 55 and up in New Richmond. The project, which rejuvenated a rundown downtown building, received a 2023 award from the Wisconsin Economic Development Association as well as national recognition with the 2022 Charles L. Edson Tax Credit Excellence Award.
In addition, West CAP and Gerrard built Dakota Meadows in New Richmond, a 50-unit, partially solar-powered, affordable housing project that opened in 2022. They are building a similar 60-unit housing development using geothermal heat in Eau Claire and plan to start construction of a 50-unit affordable housing building (with the goal of being a net-zero energy project) in Ellsworth in 2024.
Kilde says projects such as these need commitments from local communities and a desire to turn words into action. “People want this kind of housing. They want affordable housing that is recognized as a community asset, not a liability,” he says.
“People want this kind of housing. They want affordable housing that is recognized as a community asset, not a liability.”