Joe Friedrichs

Cook County still faces housing shortage despite decades of effort to solve the problem

An article from Minnesota Public Radio focused on the lack of workforce housing in Cook County reads: “Small towns all across Minnesota are trying to attract businesses to provide jobs for workers. In Cook County on the North Shore of Lake Superior, businesses are thriving, but there aren’t enough places for the workers to live. It’s a problem that plagues many resort areas, and people in Cook County are coming up with some innovative solutions.”

The article reads as though it was published this week. It wasn’t. It was published in January 2001.

That’s the same month Apple announced iTunes as a new platform for organizing and playing digital music. Bill Clinton started out the month as president before George W. Bush was sworn in Jan. 20. In other words, the MPR article about a lack of workforce housing in Cook County was published a long time ago.

That being the case, the similarities between then and now are remarkable. Community leaders are thinking outside the box to build more homes. Business owners seek incentives and creative ideas for building homes where their employees can live. Grassroots efforts to address the problem continue to crop up.

“It is eerie how much it does apply to our current situation,” Cook County Administrator James Joerke said of the similarities between the current housing crunch and the situation the county faced two decades prior. “It almost feels like nothing has changed.”

Another parallel between the 2001 MPR story and recent coverage by WTIP on this topic is longtime local resident Dennis Rysdahl. Two decades ago, Rysdahl told the MPR reporter he was taking advantage of a new state program that provided low-interest loans to help develop housing in rural Minnesota. Rysdahl said he was planning to use the government backed program to build more housing units for his employees. In 2021, Rysdahl – the former owner of Bluefin Bay in Tofte who is still involved in many business happenings in Cook County – has appeared on multiple occasions before the board of county commissioners requesting financial incentives to build housing, this time through tax abatements, in order to build more workforce housing in Tofte. The tax breaks also will allow for more retail space and restaurants in Tofte as well.

Bruce Kimmel from the Ehlers financial group in the Twin Cities occasionally provides guidance to the Cook County Board of Commissioners. Kimmel told WTIP in November that tax abatements are one tool that could help the county address the ongoing housing crisis.

“We know that affordable workforce housing is quite scarce,” he said. “And I think, or at least I understand that the county board felt comfortable awarding tax abatement in these situations because workforce housing is such a key priority for the county.”

And while the complexities to solve the situation remain, county officials and others working to solve the local housing crunch point to the recently formed Housing Redevelopment Authority as a sign of progress. The HRA board meets for the first time Nov. 17. That being the case, Joerke said a number of challenges remain – from the cost to build locally to the abundance of public land in the county – when it comes to addressing the lack of housing in Cook County.

“It’s a really hard problem to solve,” Joerke said, “and if that weren’t the case it would have been solved already.”

The audio below is Joerke speaking with WTIP’s Joe Friedrichs on Nov. 10 about this topic and other county news.