Washington Co. wants to attract young families. It hopes building new houses on smaller lots is the answer

NOW: Washington Co. wants to attract young families. It hopes building new houses on smaller lots is the answer

JACKSON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- While springtime is synonymous with construction in Wisconsin, leaders in Washington County broke ground Monday on a project they hope will have a far greater impact than any road repairs. 

In a ceremony launching construction of "The Oaks of Jackson," county and local officials took another step in their quest to keep and attract young families.

A quick look at the county's demographics explains why that's such a priority. Washington County's population that is 60 or older is 20% higher than the national average and 10% higher than the state average.

"If we can't have the next generation come back, who's gonna sit in the church pew? Who's gonna be on the volunteer fire company?" County Executive Josh Schoemann said. "Who's gonna arrive at the ambulance call to take care of the elderly person?"

Schoemann said a lack of affordable housing is making it difficult to ensure that next generation will exist. According to the county, only seven homes were on the market Monday with a listing price of less than $300,000 without any pending or contingent offers.

To boost its stock of affordable housing, the county is committing $10 million to what it's calling "Next Generation Housing," and $2.5 million of that money is coming from the county's share of federal pandemic aid; the rest will come from the county's general fund.

By 2032, the county plans to build 1,000 new houses -- 75% of those homes will be priced at less than $320,000 while the most expensive ones will be listed at just under $420,000. "The Oaks" will feature the first 101 of those houses; home construction on those is set to begin this fall with the first sales closing in the spring of 2024.

Jackson Village President Brian Heckendorf said the cause was dear to him because he saw the challenges firsthand in the private sector while working as a bank lender.

"It was disheartening to meet with my clients, only to see them have to go elsewhere," Heckendorf said. "Outside of Jackson or Washington County, to buy homes that were more affordable and would work with their budget."

Smaller footprint, smaller cost

In addition to building new homes, the county also worked with municipalities to make ordinances surrounding home construction less restrictive.

Both Schoemann and Economic Development Corp. Director Christian Tscheschlok said the biggest hurdle was minimum lot size requirements that were so big, it was essentially a mandate that the only new houses would be too expensive for those seeking a starter home.

"When we started this process 18 months ago, every municipality that we are working with now disallowed, regulated away the ability to build a home on a lot smaller than about 8,000-square feet," Schoemann said.

The local governments altered their ordinances to allow for home construction on smaller lots, with the goal of creating more tightly packed new lots whose houses didn't cost as much to build.

"It focuses more on allowing for greater densities, ultimately," Tscheschlok said.

At the same time, the lots won't bear any resemblance to even smaller lots in more densely packed neighborhoods in Milwaukee. And Tscheschlok listed requirements of sidewalks on both sides of the street as another example of burdensome regulations, so this project won't be confused with an urbanist movement any time soon. 

Incentives for service

Under the program, homeowners can help pay off some of their down payment through community service. The county will pay $25 for each hour a homeowner works with a nonprofit, a church, or a volunteer fire/EMS department.

"We pre-pay that grant," Tscheschlok said. "So that when they need to buy the home, they have the funds to do that, and then they earn it over time."

Government intervention in a conservative place? 

Overall, it's the kind of move that might raise eyebrows on first blush: one of the state's most conservative counties is subsidizing home construction. Schoemann and other county leaders maintain the move is consistent with their principles because homeowners will be paying for the houses over time.

"The key is giving people an opportunity, rather than a voucher or a subsidy and a handout," he said.

Tscheschlok added that immediately after World War II, the federal government was heavily involved with loans and the GI Bill for returning veterans.

Schoemann said the initiative wasn't one born out of political philosophy. Rather, it came from recognizing the need to reverse a trend that threatened the county's future: the population was getting older, and affordable houses were nearly impossible to come by.

"We've gotta have the type of housing that workers can afford to live in," Schoemann said. "Teachers, cops, machinists, you name it, and this is just the start."

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