MARINETTE — Facing off against what many experts call one of the country’s most significant and difficult hurdles to robust work forces, healthy economies and thriving communities, City of Marinette Mayor Steve Genisot jets off to meet with high-level Washington officials at the White House next week.

Genisot represents a select few mayors chosen from across the nation who will convene at a White House Roundtable Wednesday. Also attending, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson and key administration officials and policy makers will provides a platform for which local leaders, like Genisot, can share ideas, offer suggestions and formulate strategies stemming from their experiences with affordable housing challenges. The Housing Affordability Roundtable represents continued efforts by the White House to address that key issue.

Lack of access to affordable housing serves as a major factor contributing to workforce shortages, declining community populations, wavering economic health and a score of other rural and urban issues confronting small towns and cities across the nation. 

“Affordable housing is a very important need in our community,” Genisot said, reflecting on recent events that placed Marinette in the Washington spotlight, illuminating the potential of Opportunity Zones paradigms.

A Washington initiative spearheaded by Executive Director White House Opportunity & Revitalization Council Scott Turner, an Opportunity Zone serves as an economic development tool that that can help incentivize the redevelopment and re-purposing of a community’s infrastructure. Turner visited the Marinette-Menominee area last month to survey areas where the right economic investment might spur robust business development and community growth.

However, that kind of development takes housing and local amenities to attract, accommodate and retain an ample, educated and skilled workforce.

Founded in 1981 to examine federal budget priorities, The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), compiles housing statistics on individual states. In Wisconsin, the CBPP reports that rent costs eat up over half the income for three in 10 low-income wage earners. Additionally, the Wisconsin Realtors Association also reports that since about 2012 home prices in Wisconsin continue an uphill climb.

According to National Association of Realtors (NAR) President John Smaby, who attended a similar White House Roundtable to discuss affordable housing, the complex interplay between housing and community health produces far-reaching impacts.

“Housing affordability is one of the most significant problems facing this nation, our economy and potential home buyers in communities everywhere,” Smaby said in an NAR article. 

Executive Director CEO of the Marinette Menominee Area Chamber of Commerce Jacqueline Boudreau agreed. She drew similar correlations to the workforce shortage facing local areas as well as across the State of Wisconsin. She emphasized that a lack of affordable housing can further amplify a labor shortages for a community.

“If the housing stock is not adequate … then the labor force has a tendency to live in outlying areas,” Boudreau said.

When a large portion of a labor force commutes to work, those employees shy away from establishing roots in the community where they work. As a result, populations remain stagnant or decline, producing a negative feedback loop that drains a community’s skilled and professional workforce and hampers financial success for local businesses.  As an example, she pointed out that a good portion of the Marinette workforce commutes from areas residing closer to large metropolitan areas like Green Bay, where housing and amenity options better serve the lifestyles and income of that workforce.

“There are a lot of moving parts,” said State Director Frank Frassetto of USDA Rural Development in Wisconsin, referring to the ways that housing and the labor market push and pull on each other.

He cited one of the area’s largest employers, Fincantieri Marinette Marine, as an example of how the labor market can influence housing needs. The shipyard requires employees with all types of skill, from welders to office workers to CEOs.

“When you have an employer like Fincantieri that hires at multiple levels, it becomes about whether or not those employees can find the right homes available,” Frassetto said.

Boudreau further explained that a community like Marinette, which possesses a mixed workforce, must offer a mix of housing options and the community services to go with those options. For example, a millennial might want coffee shops and trendy housing while an entry-level employee might desire an affordable home or apartment. Moreover, businesses like Aurora Medical Center - Bay Area need doctors and nurses who might want more family-oriented accommodations.    

The situation remains complex and difficult for Marinette and the surrounding areas. Both Boudreau and Frassetto point out that leaders across the Wisconsin recognize the depth and complexity of the problem and continue to focus highly on finding solutions through teamwork.

“It’s a priority for businesses in Wisconsin and Michigan,” Boudreau said. “And that is why so many business groups are looking at the issue (of housing) and trying to find creative and innovative ways to address it.”

The situation carries poignant implication for Genisot’s White House Roundtable trip. When minds from across the country, heralding from communities similar to Marinette, come together, solutions start emerging.   

“I’m honored to be representing the City of Marinette … to speak specifically about the city’s need for affordable, workforce housing,” Genisot said.