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Candidates for Bemidji City Council participate in forum on housing

Three candidates for the upcoming Bemidji City Council elections participated in a political forum focused on housing, hosted by the Headwaters Landlord Association on Sept. 15.

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Kathy Guess, vice president of the Headwaters Landlord Association, speaks during a housing forum on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022, at Beltrami Electric Cooperative. Candidate Audrey Thayer (seated) looks on.
Nicole Ronchetti / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — In a political forum hosted by the Headwaters Landlord Association, three candidates for the upcoming elections for the Bemidji City Council shared their thoughts on housing.

Held on Sept. 15 at Beltrami Electric Cooperative, candidates for Ward 4 incumbent Emelie Rivera and challenger David Hoefer, along with At-Large candidate current Ward 1 Councilor Audrey Thayer answered a series of questions posed by a moderator.

At-Large candidate and current Ward 3 Councilor Ron Johnson was not able to attend due to a prior engagement, but did provide a brief recorded message to those in attendance.

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Ward 4 candidate David Hoefer speaks during a housing forum with the Headwaters Landlord Association on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022, at Beltrami Electric Cooperative.
Nicole Ronchetti / Bemidji Pioneer

The questions opened with moderator and HLA President Andrew Erholtz asking the candidates their thoughts on everything from the city’s relationship with the HLA to the availability of housing in Bemidji.

“Housing availability and affordability are issues not only in Bemidji, but across the United States,” Erholtz said. “Current zoning, economics and regulations have produced housing at a slower rate than our housing needs; the result is increased competition for housing available for both owners and renters.”

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With this limited supply of housing, Erholtz explained that prices for the available housing go up and can quickly become unaffordable. He asked what sorts of policies the candidates would pursue to stimulate housing development in Bemidji.

“Looking at zoning regulations and seeing what fits in Bemidji is really important,” Hoefer said. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to have to compromise our safety codes, but what it does mean is not putting up roadblocks.”

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Andrew Erholtz, president of the Headwaters Landlord Association, speaks during a housing forum on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022, at Beltrami Electric Cooperative.
Nicole Ronchetti / Bemidji Pioneer

The other candidates agreed with the need to look at zoning, and also brought up other strategies. For Rivera, being deliberate about the city’s goals with housing was an important consideration.

“It’s really important to remove those barriers whenever possible,” Rivera said. “Affordable housing and housing development are critical needs for our community. How can we do this in a really thoughtful way? That’s how we keep people in our community.”

Rivera also mentioned the possibility of waiving certain fees to encourage development, something that Bemidji has done in the past.

“We’ve done really good things in the past to encourage housing,” Rivera shared. “And we have really good opportunities. It’s going to take partnerships.”

Thayer also agreed with these approaches and mentioned upcoming reviews of various city ordinances related to housing, before focusing on the importance of zoning in her answer.

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Ward 4 Councilor Emelie Rivera speaks during a housing forum with the Headwaters Landlord Association on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022, at Beltrami Electric Cooperative.
Nicole Ronchetti / Bemidji Pioneer

“We have to look at how we can modify zoning, remembering the importance of residential zones having a balance,” Thayer said.

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In particular Thayer spoke against the divisions created by clusters of rental housing separated from clusters of single-family homes, and similar separations of affordable and market rate housing.

“If we didn’t have cluster housing and we had families distributed in our communities we’d be better off, instead of putting people in a corner,” Thayer said. “That affects the entire city.”

Need for affordable housing

As the discussion continued, the availability of affordable housing was a recurring theme, particularly after Rivera noted that about half of Bemidji residents are renters and 76% of those tenants live below the poverty line.

“One thing that’s stayed pretty consistent in our community is poverty levels –- it’s getting worse in fact,” Rivera said. “I’ve lived in subsidized housing … we need to be providing not just the supportive services but the housing stock that’s needed for people to stay in this community.”

Both Rivera and Thayer noted the difficulty of finding rental units that accept housing vouchers, and some of the different approaches the city could take in trying to address this.

These included asking whether new developments would include a certain proportion of subsidized units, working with landlords to help reduce the risk of accepting a tenant who might not have a strong rental history, and providing education to first-time renters.

“It’s about how we see things and can work together,” Thayer said. “We embrace those who are in need.”

With each of these housing topics discussed, one of Erholtz’s final questions for the candidates included whether they would be in favor of Bemidji conducting a housing study to investigate the city’s needs.

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A housing study was formerly underway in 2020, but was left unfinished after Bemidji’s community development director position was vacated.

All three candidates supported the idea of conducting the study, with some acknowledgement that if it were planned for 2023 an additional source of funding would need to be found.

“Housing is critical, and it’s important to know what we are going to need and how we can accomplish that,” Hoefer said. “We definitely need (a study) to plan for the future here.”

Housing is likely to remain an important topic as the candidates’ campaigns progress and for all the parties involved, from landlords to renters to homeowners, and discussions on how these issues can be approached are vital.

“We invite Bemidji to think about how city government can stimulate housing supply. It may be time to get creative and discuss solutions,” Erholtz said. “We want Bemidji to be a thriving city.”

Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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