North shore communities have been wringing their hands for years over a housing shortage that gets in the way of supporting an adequate workforce. Two Grand Marais business owners have stepped up to do something about it, one house at a time.
Sisters Anna and Sarah Hamilton formed the nonprofit Hamilton Habitat as a means to build houses that people in the Cook County workforce could call home.
“Most places have problems getting and keeping staff,” said Anna. “There are no affordable places to live. It’s the restaurants, gas stations, and the people that work in them that keep this town going.”
The Hamilton sisters have been in the Cook County restaurant business for the last 35 years. Anna moved to Grand Marais in 1984. Her sister Sarah joined her a decade later to run the Trail Center on the Gunflint Trail, a one-stop for gas, gifts, groceries, a restaurant and lodging. Today, Sarah continues to run the Trail Center and is the president of Hamilton Habitat. Anna is the nonprofit's project manager and works most days at the Cook County Home Center hardware store. She brings to her role 12 years as a licensed realtor in Cook County, and a familiarity with land and zoning.
Starting Hamilton Habitat was “something we’ve been talking about for at least 25 years. We know it’s a need in the city and the county. It was time to do something,” said Anna.
The sisters started their Hamilton Habitat adventure in 2018 with the rehab of a small rental house using their own money. Determined to tackle bigger things, they laid plans to buy lots for homes that would be individually owned.
A Hamilton Habitat house begins taking shape with the delivery of a 16’ by 40’ pre-constructed shell to the site, ready to be placed on a foundation with a covered porch, roof and siding. The small, 500-square-foot one-bedroom homes have a combined kitchen and living area and a large bathroom finished by local contractors.
At a crossroads with an interested donor who could kick start the process, the Hamiltons struggled with the decision to become a nonprofit. Meetings with two different lawyers came with warnings to shy away from nonprofit status, but they were not dissuaded. In typical Anna Hamilton style, “no” was not accepted as an answer.
“They said it was too complicated, but I checked into it myself and found they were wrong, so we did it in 2019,” she said.
Non-profit status opened the door for a sizable donation that resulted in the first home build, with lot purchase, construction and sale all geared to get working class people into a home of their own. It worked.
Mikkel Haas and his fiancée Jessica Pickett are teachers in Grand Marais. Haas nearly did not accept the job two years ago because of difficulty finding housing. Faced with inadequate rental accommodations in 2019, he and Pickett considering moving from the area.
“The houses to buy in our price range were outside of town and had value in the land, but you could see everything in the house needed a lot of work. We didn’t want to end up house-poor,” Haas said.
Haas and Pickett turned to Hamilton Habitat just as the nonprofit was developing plans for the first build and became the first Hamilton Habitat homeowners.
Today, Haas and Pickett consider the 500-square foot home a stepping-stone to a larger future home as they plan a family. Haas said the home is a welcome stopover while they save money.
“The house is amazing and well-insulated, so we pay hardly anything in heat utilities. With the equity, someday when we need something bigger, we’ll be able to afford that,” said Haas.
The second Hamilton Habitat build was delayed during the pandemic, but upon its completion was immediately sold to a restaurant employee who did not have stable housing.
Currently underway is the remodeling of an existing home. This one came with a surprise sales offer from an owner who wanted to keep it out of the rental pool. A one-bedroom on the hill overlooking the iconic Grand Marais harbor, it’s the million-dollar-view that moved the Hamiltons to agree. Nearing completion, two potential buyers are already lined up.
Another work in progress is a piece of land on which they anticipate putting four houses, once rezoning allows sewer and electricity to be installed. Hopes are to have one home up before the coming winter.
Positioning the homes so they stay owned and occupied by people in the local workforce was important to the Hamiltons. Shying away from land trust arrangements, Anna said they looked for a way to give real ownership, including the land and equity. Their solution was to put the property under a deed restriction that prevents it from becoming a property that can be rented.
“That is a forever thing,” she said, “unless the courts change it. Now it can be sold or added onto, but it can’t be rented. Even if you tear down that house, there is still a real estate deed restriction on the land.”
The executive director of the Cook County/Grand Marais Economic Development Authority, Mary Somnis, said workforce housing is their top priority.
“The economic impact of the housing shortage is that the majority of our employers have problems getting employees,” said Somnis.
Hospitality jobs and professional gigs all face shortages, according to Somnis.
“The hospital, school district, resort management, they all advertise for positions. People accept the jobs and then decline because they can’t find a place to live,” she said.
A 2015 workforce housing study recommended that 25 units of single-family housing be added every year for five consecutive years to meet the workforce housing needs of Cook County. Since that time, only 28 family units have been added to the housing stock. Ten single family homes and a 16-unit apartment building were added by One Roof Community Housing in 2019, in addition to the two Hamilton Habitat homes.
Somnis says there are many reasons for the slow development of adequate housing, not the least of which is the ratio of residents to visitors.
“We are a county of about 5,000 residents playing host to more than a million visitors a year. Figuring out how to do that effectively is hard,” said Somnis.
The hilly community on the Lake Superior shore has a number of challenges for builders, including a shortage of buildable lots, lots without utilities and a topography with ledge rock and special stormwater runoff considerations.
“The cost of construction doesn’t match the value of what you can build and what people can afford to pay,” said Somnis. “That’s why accessing grants for this work is so essential.”
A newly formed committee with county-wide stakeholders is a step in that direction, said Somnis, along with the possibility of creating a Housing and Redevelopment Authority that could leverage access to grant opportunities.
Looking ahead, the Hamiltons intend to build housing that is supportive of elders aging in place.
“Our end game is an elder community with smaller, simple houses where neighbors can keep an eye on each other and have their animals. That’s vital to keeping people alive,” Anna said.
A grouping of several one-level homes with shared green space for fully independent elders is Hamilton Habitat’s first goal. A second phase would be another grouping of one-levels for elders with added services like visiting health care staff to assist with basic medications and monitoring health needs.
One to laugh as hard as she works, Anna chuckled when asked why they want to build housing for elders next.
“Sarah says we would be building a home for ourselves, and we are getting up there!”
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