Construction on Darlington farm worker housing project to begin soon

DARLINGTON, Wis. — Construction is expected to start soon on an $8 million publicly funded housing project in Darlington.

Two buildings, spanning a combined 35,000 square feet, will accommodate up to 32 households, which will be primarily agricultural workers, who comprise about 9% of the county’s workforce.

“There is a growing number of ag workers in the Darlington area,” said Wally Orzechowski, executive director of Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action Program, a partner that is backing the project. “There is not enough housing that is of high quality that they can afford.”

The complex, which will be called The Meadows, will be located on a 10-acre site along Spring Street on the southeast side of Darlington.

SWCAP partnered with Michigan developer Cinnaire Solutions on the venture. An approximately $3 million U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development loan will help finance the project, along with $3.8 million in tax credits from the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority. An additional $900,000 was awarded by Wisconsin Department of Administration.

A survey of rental housing in the region indicated that nearly 98% of rental units were occupied, an additional obstacle as the industry already faces challenges filling job openings.

Units will be either two- or three bedrooms, with rents below market rate. All units will be reserved for residents earning 30% to 60% of the county’s median family income. In conjunction with a USDA subsidy, tenants only would pay 30% of their adjusted gross income as rent, said Chris Laurent, Cinnaire’s president.

Tenants must derive at least 40% of their household income from farm labor. Most dairy farm workers in Lafayette County earn about $10 to $13 per hour.

“The farmers themselves or the companies that hire these folks want to have long-term, good employees,” Orzechowski said. “If there is not enough housing, there is a risk that they may lose them.”

Cinnaire intends to close on the property in the coming weeks. Construction is expected to begin in June. McKee Associates, of Madison, is serving as the general contractor.

The project was initially billed at $6.5 million, but rising material costs increased the total, Orzechowski said.

SWCAP also is working with the City of Darlington to apply for a grant that would finance the construction of a community facility on the property.

It would house Head Start, a free medical clinic and an office for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, a food and nutrition education program for women and children younger than 5.

“That would be for the whole community, not just for the residents of that building,” Orzechowski said.