Talk to a few people searching for a place to live in Janesville, and the stories of their search will likely tell you the city is facing a housing shortage.

Identifying the lack of available residential inventory is simple, but understanding how the city wound up in this position is more complicated.

Economic Development Director Gale Price shared some of those causes Tuesday night in a presentation that connected the housing shortage to economic development. The League of Women Voters sponsored the event.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Janesville awarded more than 200 building permits annually for single-family and two-family homes. That number plummeted to 91 in 2008 and bottomed out at 31 in 2011, Price said.

Annual permit numbers have ticked upward since but have yet to surpass 100 since the decline.

Meanwhile, Rock County unemployment fell from a peak of 13.6 percent in March 2009 to a present rate just above 2 percent. In that time, almost 5,000 more people entered the local workforce, but Janesville’s population stayed the same, Price said.

The city had more jobs to offer but fewer places to live. If Janesville doesn’t increase its available housing stock, that could complicate a company’s ability to recruit and retain employees, Price said.

No business has ever pulled out of development talks with the city solely because of the housing shortage, but having move-in ready residences means workers have the option to move to Janesville and not commute, he said.

When Dollar General came to town, the company relocated 10 employees to serve as the local management team. Only one of those people wound up living in Janesville, Price said.

Executives from other companies have also told him Janesville didn’t offer the type of housing they expected, he said.

Earlier in the day, Price led another related discussion at City Hall: a follow-up to a June housing summit. This brief talk was mostly intended for a local development audience and touched on city zoning policies.

One, known as a planned unit development, would allow the city to override certain zoning codes for a specific project without having to rewrite an entire ordinance. The process would take roughly the same amount of time to complete, but changing an ordinance to make one project work could have long-term consequences, Price said.

The city is preparing to update its comprehensive plan, so some zoning ordinances that hinder development could be permanently changed. There’s no firm timeline for when the city will update the plan.

Price mentioned at the night event that the city has five housing developments in the works. Tax increment financing would be part of the negotiations on all of them.

While some of those would cater to higher-income residents, Price reiterated the need to support blue-collar or retail employees who aren’t paid as well.

The Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority offers tax credits for such development. Because Janesville hasn’t had one of those projects built since 2002, it has bonus credits from WHEDA that could give a low-income housing developer an advantage.

The city also plans on closing a tax increment financing district near Highway 14, then extending it for one year to use the increment for residential development. It would likely be used for low-income housing, Price said.

Any residential project that comes via TIF closure would not have to happen within the TIF district’s boundaries.

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