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Builder: Housing needs community support

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Paradise
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Mike Paradise said flexibility is needed to create affordable housing.

"The community has to welcome it and want it," the president of Bigelow Homes said during a meeting with In the City for Good housing advocates Monday.

Too often, he said, new ideas meet with community opposition at planning and zoning meetings.

"You go to those meetings and everyone there, who is there to speak, is on the negative side," he said. "There’s no positive support for any of the new ideas.

Rochester City Council Member Shaun Palmer, who spent 25 years as a city building inspector, agreed that efforts to diversify the city’s housing stock by adding density or experimenting with new ideas often comes with neighborhood pushback.

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He cited a proposed development in Northeast Rochester that proposed smaller lots, which generated calls to the City Council from potential neighbors.

"‘Not in my backyard’ is a huge issue for us," he said.

Palmer pointed to recently passed zoning changes that will allow more housing density along corridors heading into downtown Rochester. Despite some neighborhood pushback, he said the council moved forward.

Paradise, who served on former Gov. Mark Dayton’s affordable housing task force, said he understands why city council members are often reluctant to take chances with new ideas that might need zoning flexibility.

"If they vote to change the norm, they probably aren’t going to stay in office," he said.

To help offer cover on such decisions, he encouraged the housing advocates to speak up when efforts to create different housing types seek city approval.

Helen Laack, coordinator of Monday’s discussion, suggested the group keep an eye out for projects and issues to support.

Steve Borchardt, housing coalition director for the Rochester Area Foundation, said such efforts will still take time.

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"We have to have patience, because this is about changing a culture," he said, noting that many neighbors with existing homes don’t understand the pressure on the current market.

Since 2004, the number of annual building permits for single-family homes has dropped from 962 to 209 last year.

Paradise said builders continue to feel the sting of the national recession and are hesitant to take risks.

"It’s incredibly risky," he said. "If we go out and start a 20-unit project – say it’s a different concept – we develop the land and get it ready to go. That’s millions of dollars, and we have to have or borrow millions of dollars to get the idea off the ground."

He said partnerships can help reduce some of the risks.

"One of biggest and most forgotten partners is the community," he said. "The biggest obstacle is the community."

He said community support for new housing concepts and potential local policy changes could go a long way to address the growing housing need on all levels.

"As soon as it becomes profitable to build the housing we need, it all goes away," he said of resistance to risk and hesitancy to experiment with housing options.

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