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St. Croix County joins CDBG housing region

Although the Wisconsin Community Development Block Grant program has been in operation for many years, the state recently decided to alter the way it distributes funds for the program. Rather than allocating money for each participating municipality, the state will give priority to those that have formed regional groups.

In response to this decision, St. Croix County has become part of the West Central Wisconsin CDBG housing region, which also includes Barron, Buffalo, Chippewa, Clark, Dunn, Eau Claire, Pepin, Pierce and Polk counties.

After volunteering to serve as the lead county for the region, Chippewa County appointed the Chippewa County Housing Authority to be the administrator of the program. According to Executive Director Ruth Rosenow, the housing authority has the power to loan state funds to low- to moderate-income families, who can use the money for home repairs or down payments.

In the past, the state awarded funds to individual municipalities, which loaned the money to eligible families. When the family paid back the loan, the money went into a revolving loan fund that stayed within the community to be loaned out to another family. Rosenow estimated that 59 revolving loan funds exist in all Wisconsin municipalities combined.

Now, there are seven regions throughout the state, usually comprising about 10 counties, compared to the 25 to 30 municipalities that the state had been dealing with before.

"The good thing about this is that it doesn't affect old money," Rosenow said. "It only applies to new money going forward."

In other words, New Richmond will be allowed to keep its already existing revolving loan fund. In the event that this fund becomes depleted or the city needs assistance, the regional administrator can provide additional money.

For homeowners and renters, the process for receiving assistance will be nearly identical, with the exception of the entity holding their mortgage.

Some municipalities called entitlement communities, which have populations more than 50,000, are not eligible to receive state assistance and receive CDBG funds directly from the federal government. According to Rosenow, the only entitlement community in the West Central Wisconsin CDBG region is the city of Eau Claire.

Although the region has received a $2.1 million state grant, Rosenow said it's not as much as it sounds when distributed across a 10-county area.

"We'll maybe give out 80 loans the first year," she said. "We won't serve a high number of people, but eventually, if that kind of money is awarded on an annual basis, it could build up and meet the need."

In order to qualify for a CDBG loan, the owner or renter must occupy the property, and the property must be considered real estate. Rosenow said the loan committee won't accept applicants who do not have equity in their property or haven't paid their property taxes.

Finally, based on the number of people in the household, the family's income cannot exceed 80 percent of the county's median income. For St. Croix County, the eligible incomes are as follows:

-- Household of 1: $45,100

-- Household of 2: $51,550

-- Household of 3: $58,000

-- Household of 4: $64,000

-- Household of 5: $69,600

-- Household of 6: $74,750

--Household of 7: $79,900

-- Household of 8: $85,050

If the family meets all of the aforementioned requirements, the administrator will determine whether a project is feasible and necessary.

"We can replace a failing roof or septic system, rotting siding, leaking plumbing and sparking electric systems," Rosenow said. "But we can't remodel a kitchen. It must be for the health and safety of people."

Because the process for this change was developed only last year, the Chippewa County Housing Authority still has much to ascertain. Handling waiting lists, interacting with municipalities like New Richmond that have their own revolving loan funds and overcoming the challenges posed by long-distance service are all issues waiting to be addressed.

"When we spread out like this, we want to make sure we're still providing a quality product," Rosenow said. "Quality and efficiency are still our main concerns."

Although it can't accept applications until September, the Chippewa County Housing Authority plans to reach out to the 10 counties by submitting articles to area newspapers and sending posters to county representatives. The outreach will begin on the same day in every county so that each person has an equal opportunity to apply.

"Then we'll brace ourselves for the calls," Rosenow said. "We could get a pretty big onslaught of interest, especially in areas where CDBG funds haven't been available in the past. Some people have never had the opportunity to apply, so we want to make it fair for everyone."

Jenny Hudalla
A senior at Bethel University, Jenny Hudalla is pursuing degrees in journalism, Spanish and reconciliation studies. Having graduated from New Richmond High School in 2011, she served as editor-in-chief of the Tiger Rag before taking a job as editor-in-chief of Bethel's student newspaper, The Clarion. After completing her internship with the New Richmond News, Hudalla plans to move on to a career in social justice.
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