By Tom Hintgen

Otter Tail County Correspondent 

Otter Tail County’s success with housing initiatives is drawing attention from other counties throughout the state of Minnesota. “The Big Build” program, approved five years ago by county commissioners, is designed to spur new investment in single and two-family homes. 

“Each month the county board considers approval of tax abatements on a portion of the county’s share of property taxes for eligible applicants,” says Amy Baldwin, county Community Development Agency (CDA) director. “Expanding housing opportunities is critical in addressing our county’s workforce needs.”

First-time homebuyers in Otter Tail County, with assistance from the CDA, have also purchased homes with lower interest rate mortgages and down payment assistance through the Minnesota Cities Participation Program. 

“This is a partnership between local lenders, Otter Tail County and the Minnesota Housing Agency,” Baldwin said.

The total housing investment in Otter Tail County was more than $100 million the past 12 months, matching the total from the previous year. County commissioners were asked about this success story during the recent gathering of the Association of Minnesota Counties (AMC) in the Twin Cities.

“We’ve had a very good track record with housing starts the past five years,” said County Commissioner Wayne Johnson of Pelican Rapids during the county board of commissioners meeting on Feb. 27. “We’ve seen great progress, but there still is more work to do.”

Johnson said he tells commissioners from other counties that housing success in Otter Tail County would not be possible unless there was buy-in from county residents and various public-private partnerships.

Baldwin said the purpose of the Community Development Agency (CDA) is to strengthen the communities of Otter Tail County by expanding housing opportunities, promoting business development and fostering the coordination of public and private resources.

The CDA is a local government agency that is governed by an 8-member board.

County Commissioner Lee Rogness of Fergus Falls said the CDA deserves credit for not only increasing housing throughout the county but also for expanding the county’s tax base. 

Rogness and County Board Chairman Kurt Mortenson of rural Underwood point out that expanding the tax base improves the quality of life in Otter Tail County by supporting affordable housing, redevelopment, commercial rehabilitation and public infrastructure projects.

“We commend the CDA for taking the lead in expanding housing throughout Otter Tail County,” Mortenson added.

During 2023 the CDA, through the Big Build program, increased the construction of new housing units, built partnerships to expand capacity and advocated for increased funding and support of housing in Otter Tail County.

County commissioners note that “The Big Build” program also encourages current homeowners to move up into the next tier of housing. This will leave lower-level housing for first-time home buyers.

Otter Tail County also has a Housing Choice Voucher Program which is a partnership between the Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) and local residential property owners. The purpose of the program is to provide rental assistance to eligible households to lease existing rental units.

Total housing projects from 2019 to 2023, over a five-year period, totaled 2,543. Included were 2,031 new housing units and 512 rehabbed housing units.