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Young professionals struggle to find places to live in the Northwoods. Here's what that means for the labor shortage


The housing shortage has reached its tentacles into every corner of the Northwoods housing market. But one group in particular faces a real estate challenge – young professionals.

When Eric Durbin graduated from UW-Platteville with a degree in engineering, it didn’t take him long to land his dream job at Superior Diesel in Rhinelander.

What did take him long was finding a place to live.

“I started looking around for apartments in the Rhinelander area and everything was booked up unless I wanted to come from Merrill or drive 30 minutes or more every day,” he says. “Every apartment complex I talked to said they had a six month wait or longer.”

The housing search was such a challenge that Durbin ended up sleeping on a friend’s couch in Wausau. He made the hour-long commute to the office every day, until he finally signed a lease for a small, studio apartment in town.

“It’s a converted old office,” he says. “I got one of the newer, renovated ones in the building, but they upped the price because it’s renovated, so it’s a little expensive for a studio.”

It’s not ideal, and Durbin is on the lookout for better digs.

Still, he’s luckier than some.

“I get random calls with people from all different situations,” says Cecily Dawson, a local realtor with Lakeland Realty. “But a couple of them are, ‘if I don’t find a place to live, I cannot move to this community, and I’d like to take this good job.’”

Dawson says the market is tight right now for everyone – young and old, rich and poor.

But for workers just launching a career or looking to purchase a first home, prospects are especially bleak.

She says that’s the case for a few reasons.

“The hottest price point, as far as what will sell the fastest – although everything is selling super-fast – in the Northwoods market is around $150,000,” she says. “That’s a common starting point for many buyers.”

What’s more, Dawson says, many young professionals are looking for homes that are already updated, that they won’t have to put tons of work into to make habitable. Those are even harder to come by in the Northwoods.

Furthermore, if a buyer isn’t offering cash (which many young people can’t afford), they are in for a prolonged housing hunt.

“The majority of cash buyers, by the time they put in their second offer on a second home, they’re likely to get it,” Dawson says.

That’s not the case for conventional loan buyers.

“With conventional loan buyers, we’re finding that number is seven,” she says. “What that means is, [younger buyers] very likely are using a conventional loan to buy their home. They might have to offer on seven different homes before they get one. And that’s the average, not even the max.”

At the current rate, it could take a year or more for that many homes acceptable to the buyer to be listed.

Nate Schoone knows this all too well. He grew up in Rhinelander, lived out west for a few years, and recently moved back to the area to be closer to family.

He has a job with Ponsse North America, but not a house. So, he moved back in with his parents.

“It is extremely difficult to find an affordable house right now,” he says. “I’d like to move on to something by the fall. I’m feeling out some family friends too. The more people who know you’re looking to buy a house, you might be able to get to it before it even hits the market.”

Schoone is saving money for a down payment by living with his family and avoiding the monthly rent of an apartment.

For those who don’t have that option, Dawson says even finding an affordable apartment can be tough.

“Just like a home purchase, there might be dozens of applications,” she says. “It’s tough.”

All of this competition in both the housing and rental markets accentuates another problem in the Northwoods – the labor shortage.

“We need more housing for people to come in and it does affect every facet of our community from childcare to servers at restaurants to everything,” Dawson says.

In Minocqua, healthcare workers like traveling nurses face an especially hard time finding short-term housing. And many businesses have started providing housing to attract seasonal workers during the summer tourism boom.

They don’t have many other options, says Krystal Westfahl, the executive director of the Minocqua Chamber of Commerce.

“Our businesses do just close if they can’t find the workforce,” she says. “They’re not available to answer phone calls, so customer service then becomes an issue. It’s just a domino effect.”

In catch-22 fashion, businesses can’t attract more workers without more housing.

“We don’t have the wages in order for someone to buy a $300,000 home,” Westfahl says. “If we’re trying to attract a younger workforce, potentially those that are just out of college, the bills are insurmountable with the type of work that we have available for them.”

It’s a problem without an easy solution, but one that will need to be addressed as the Northwoods continues adapt to a shifting economy.

Erin Gottsacker worked at WXPR as a Morning Edition host and reporter from December 2020 to January 2023. During her time at the station, Erin reported on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.
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