•Rural communities would be wise to provide other housing options for seniors whose houses are getting to be too much for them but want to stay in the area. 

By Karen Tolkinen

StarTribune columnist

Grandma, there are families who want your greater Minnesota house. There are employers who want those families in your house. There are planners who say it would help the rural housing and labor crunch if those families were to occupy the house where you raised your kids instead of one lone retiree in a house full of memories.

But what about you, Grandma? What do you want?

“I’m not trying to kick our seniors out of their home, but … kinda,” Ben Winchester, a University of Minnesota professor who studies rural areas, recently told a group assembled online to talk about the state’s rural housing crunch. “Maybe they shouldn’t be in these four-bedroom, two-bath homes.”

In espousing an idea with so much blowback potential, Winchester does not lack for guts. He told me he’s had people walk out of his presentations, sure that he’s advocating for the forced removal of Grandma or Grandpa from their home.

That is not what Winchester means. Winchester, the mind behind the convention-bending “Rural Brain Gain” report, doesn’t think anyone should be forced to move anywhere. But he says that rural communities would be wise to provide other housing options for seniors whose houses are getting to be too much for them but want to stay in the area. One option is to build patio homes. Grandparents could sell their larger home to young families and use that equity to buy a smaller house that requires less maintenance. Or maybe zoning officials could start permitting accessory dwelling units on city lots.

“The inability of seniors to move out has inhibited the ability for our new labor to move in,” Winchester said.

You can definitely feel the labor crunch across greater Minnesota, especially when restaurants close early or don’t open at all because they don’t have the staff, or when companies can’t boost production because they can’t find workers. I’ve also spoken to professionals who wish they could live in the town where they work but can’t find a place to live. So they commute.

Homeowners in many greater Minnesota counties skew older than those in the Twin Cities, sometimes significantly. In three counties, Aitkin, Traverse and Big Stone, at least 35% of owner-occupied homes are owned by people age 65 and over, while that percentage is 25% or below in the metropolitan area. The crunch is most acute where the economy is thriving and there aren’t enough young workers to take over for those nearing retirement.

A closer look at who owns homes in Aitkin County, for example, reveals that 2,800 homes are owned by people age 65 or older, while 735 homes are owned by someone age 25 to 44, according to Minnesota Compass, which compiles data for policymakers and other leaders.

Often the elderly want to stay in their own homes, and in recent years, organizations have launched efforts to help them do that by adding wheelchair ramps to the front door or grab bars to bathrooms.

Winchester says that the elderly — and their communities — would be better served by providing “move-over housing,” as grab bars and wheelchair ramps probably won’t be wanted or needed by a home’s next residents.

Winchester isn’t the only researcher pointing this out. In 2018, researcher Kelly Asche at the Center for Rural Policy and Development in Mankato, wrote that age-in-place policies and lack of assisted-living facilities in rural areas was causing a bottleneck in houses coming on the market. He predicted that the trend would lead to more dilapidated housing.

Everything these researchers say sounds logical. But a home is about more than logic or statistics. It’s where you bring home newborns, where they take their first steps. It’s where casseroles steam on Sunday dinner tables and cousins gather for the Thanksgiving meal. Who would ever think that such a refuge could end up being seen as a problem for rural areas trying to attract more workers? And who would ever want to leave such a place? But the truth is, we all will, eventually.

It’s important to point out that Grandma and Grandpa did not cause the rural housing crunch.

Causes include the rising cost of homebuilding supplies, pricing families out of the market, and the pandemic-era trend of professionals moving to the countryside, which also put pressure on the rural housing stock.

In 2023, the national nonprofit Up for Growth published a study showing that the housing shortage has improved in big cities and worsened in small ones, largely because pandemic-era shifts in the workplace allowed certain kinds of workers to move to suburbs, small towns and rural areas. It found that Minnesota is short 106,000 houses.

Eyeing Grandma or Grandpa’s house is definitely easier than turning away new residents, who bring comparative wealth, youth and, often, children into rural areas.

So Grandma, you are definitely not the cause of the problem. But you could be a part of the solution — if you want to be.

Karen Tolkinen is a columnist for the Star Tribune, focused on the issues and people of greater Minnesota. She wrote this for the StarTribune dated July 1, 2024.