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Etc.: Home work
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The Platteville Common Council spent an hour May 10 on one of Platteville’s most intractable problems without coming to agreement about what the problem is.

The problem, depending on which alderman you ask, is either that there are not enough owner-occupied homes in Platteville, or there are not enough homes suitable for young professionals and young families — to rent or buy — in the city. 

Actually, if you ask economic development professionals and others, both are Platteville problems, along with the related issue of long-time homeowners who might want to sell their homes, but who haven’t updated their homes in decades, which makes them more attractive for landlords than homeowners.

(The discussion on that last point included pejorative mention of avocado-color appliances and shag carpeting that required occasional raking. I grew up in a home with both. For that matter, my grandparents had a burnt orange stove, and I’m pretty sure some relatives had harvest gold appliances. On the other hand, unlike most Platteville houses, we had a two-car garage.)

You know there’s a problem when new city employees and new Platteville Public Schools teachers can’t find suitable places to live in the city limits. Every community wants recent college graduates to live there; UW–Platteville sends almost 1,000 out into the world twice a year, but they more often than not don’t live here. Drive just outside the city limits or around Belmont, and you’ll see that new homes are being built, but not within the Platteville city limits. The school district’s stake in this isn’t just finding places for teachers to live; it’s getting young families to move into the school district, since every student brings with himself or herself more than $10,000 in state aid.

Platteville is unusual among college towns in that UW–Platteville students live nearly everywhere in the city. Much of the reason probably is UWP’s enrollment growth outstripping its housing capacity, but that’s not necessarily the case anymore given the construction of Rountree Commons and Bridgeview Commons. Add that to other large-scale rental housing — including Washington Place, the near-completion Villas at Pool Place, and the proposed St. Augustine University Parish project — and it’s no wonder one apartment owner at an April Common Council meeting claimed he counted 35 For Rent signs in the city. (Some of those include one free month with a year’s lease, which is unheard of in this city.) UW–Platteville’s enrollment growth is neither infinite nor indefinite, so the number of For Rent signs may well increase in the next few years with incentives for renters to sign on the dotted line.

It should be obvious, even in the era after the Great Recession and its house-value crash, why the city — why every community — wants to promote home ownership over renting. Platteville will always have a high percentage of renters, but home ownership implies commitment to your community in civic involvement. The city and community has made substantial commitments in major projects, the Rountree Branch Trail and the Library Block, and the goal now is to get more people here to use them.

The city spent $600,000 on developer incentives one decade ago to get more homes built in the city. It worked, as the newer homes in the Knollwood Way area and near Platteville High School prove. However, those were houses that, I am told, sold for $175,000 to $200,000. It is very rare to find new homes in the $100,000 to $150,000 range — think one step up from a starter home — because there must not be enough profit for homebuilders at that price. On the other hand, buy a $90,000 house and put $30,000 of updates into it, and you have also committed yourself to a huge amount of work with not much profit. For that matter, even with the updates that $120,000 house is likely to lack such niceties of today as a garage for more than one car or very much yard space.

The council looked at home ownership or improvement incentives in six Midwestern college towns, including Madison. The programs go from grants to forgivable loans, usually within certain parts of the city, to even having the city of Iowa City, Iowa, purchase and then resell homes. (Remember that the City of Platteville owned 15 Darrel Kallembach homes — though for different reasons than the council now has in mind — and still owns the land on which three demolished homes sat.)

The city is likely limited in the ability to provide financial incentives because the city is limited in available money to spend on anything, such as a faster road repair schedule. (That, as you know, is due mainly to city councils of the 1980s and 1990s failing to do things to expand the city tax base.) Given that and the appearance that the council can’t seem to decide what’s more important — owner-occupied homes or improved homes, whether owner-occupied or rented — one is initially pessimistic about solving what certainly is a difficult problem to solve under better financial circumstances.