In Door County, luxury, tourism leave little room for affordable workforce housing

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In a community funded by tourism and affluence, much of Door County’s year-round and seasonal workforce is struggling to live comfortably.

Resorts, seasonal rentals and second or third homes dominate the land, but without more affordable housing, the county could lose many of its employees.

According to a 2019 study by Housing Door County, three of the biggest forces driving the county’s demand for housing since 2010 are job growth; an expansion of tourism, particularly in northern Door County; and a heightened interest in second homes, especially for people in their 50s or 60s whose income is higher than the national median household income. 

Many homes in the county — almost 10,000 as of 2019 — are in seasonal use but not rented. Based on interviews conducted as part of the report, some are empty year-round due to aging or busy owners and have the potential to support workforce housing.

Door County Land Use Services Department Director Mariah Goode said part of the housing problem is tied to construction costs, which have climbed higher due to the coronavirus pandemic and shortage of materials, slowing the construction of new housing.

Boats are docked along Fish Creek Harbor in Door County. Many workers in Door County, both seasonal workers in the tourism industry and permanent residents, struggle to find quality, affordable places to live in the county. Credit: Mike De Sisti and Jim Nelson / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY NETWORK

However, the pandemic did not stop a surge in the real estate market.

“People don’t even bother putting up ‘for sale’ signs here,” Goode said. “Something lists, and within a day, there’s multiple showings and multiple offers.”

Paige Funkhouser, now the Door County Maritime Museum’s community engagement manager, moved from Southern California to Sturgeon Bay in 2003, when housing was a little easier to find. A few years later, just before the recession hit in 2008, she moved further up the peninsula to the Gibraltar area, and spent a long time looking before she settled into a new house that she could afford that had propane heat.

“It was a beautiful house,” she said. “But here’s the problem: I set it on fire when the heat went out and I had to use the stove to keep warm.”

Luckily, she woke up before the fire spread past the carpet, but this wasn’t the end of her housing woes, as she later moved into a house where black mold grew on her walls, in her shoes and on her belongings.

Emily Johnson, a personal banker at North Shore Bank’s Sturgeon Bay location, also faced mold among other issues in a living space that was less than adequate, but affordable at the time. 

“The day I moved in, the floor was flooded from the bathroom, and the floor squished when you walked on it,” she said. “In the same breath, I am very grateful for having a place when I needed it that was affordable for me.”

While they are living more stably now, Johnson and Funkhouser struggled in those times, working full time or holding multiple jobs, to stay afloat.

“I have always been raised that you do what you have to do to make ends meet and pay your bills,” Johnson said. “There were many years where I worked 60 to 80 hour work weeks just to be able to keep up, but that’s what I did.”