Landlocked by bluffs on one side and bounded by a river on the other, the city of La Crosse has become an island of lower-value homes, as the county’s most expensive housing has gone to the growing suburb of Onalaska and towns such as Shelby and Hamilton.
With less than half the total housing, Onalaska now has nearly four times as many homes valued at more than $500,000, according to La Crosse County Land Records data. And of the 15 highest-valued single-family residences in the county, seven are in a single subdivision — Emerald Valley.
Onalaska’s 99 high-end homes generate more nearly $450,000 a year in revenue for the city. More important, they add more than $72 million to the tax base. And that’s good for everyone, as a bigger base means everyone pays a little less.
La Crosse, by comparison, has just 26 such properties worth a collective $19 million. Meanwhile, nearly 70 percent of the county’s houses worth less than $100,000 are in the city of La Crosse, according to a Tribune analysis of tax data.
That’s not simply a tax-base problem.
The city of La Crosse, with a residential value of just more than $32,000 per capita, spends about $419 per resident on police and fire protection. With a per capita value of more than $55,000, Onalaska, on the other hand, spends about half as much — $214 per resident.
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To be sure, La Crosse’s long and narrow layout presents coverage challenges.
typically require more services — especially police and fire — said Karl Green, a community development specialist with the University of Wisconsin Extension Service who has studied the county’s housing problems.
“As people move out of the city … you get a greater demand on services. It’s not the $300,000 homes that burn down. It’s the lower value homes,” Green said. “It becomes more expensive to serve. You have less resources to support the burden.”
Fire department data back that up.
Over the three years between 2008 and 2010, nearly 70 percent of all structure fires in the city of La Crosse occurred at properties with improvement values of less than $100,000, which represent just 60 percent of all properties.
Lower-income residents — or negligent landlords — are less likely to replace the ageing furnaces found in older homes, or supplement them with dangerous space heaters.
And that leads to more fires, said Assistant Chief Warren Thomas of the La Crosse Fire Department.
What’s more, Thomas said, fire tends to spread faster in older homes, where walls were built without fire stops.
“There’s basically an open channel through the wall,” Thomas said. “The fire can go from the basement up to the second floor and into the attic. By the time the fire department got there it’s fully involved.”
The city also supports parks and libraries and the services that go along with hosting most of the counties jobs.
“We always hear taxes are so high, that’s driving people out,” said La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat. “I think we pay more than our fair share of services.”
While much is made of the tax disparity between La Crosse and neighboring communities, Green said that’s not likely a big factor for those building $500,000 or more homes.
“You’ve got enough money that that’s not going to break you,” he said.
The bigger draw is amenities — be it secluded lots, bluff-top view or waterfront — and proximity to other high-end real estate.
Barry Blomquist said his foremost concern when he built a home in Emerald Valley 15 years ago was getting his kids in the Onalaska schools. But he also knew he was going to build a higher-priced home and thought being in a development with similar homes would help preserve resale value.
“I thought the house would hold its value better there,” he said.
Though high-end housing has benefited Onalaska, Mayor Joe Chilsen said it’s not something he’s deliberately tried to attract.
“Usually the developers have their mind made up,” he said.
La Crosse voters may have had more to do with Onalaska’s housing boom, thanks to a 1990 referendum that kicked the private La Crosse Country Club off the city-owned land that is now Forest Hills golf course.
A David vs. Goliath battle that pitted blue collar against blue blood, the vote led to the construction of a new country club and golf course now surrounded by most of the county’s highest-value homes.
The move didn’t eliminate potential development in La Crosse, but it did create opportunity in Onalaska.
“In retrospect, perhaps that was a driver,” Kabat said.
There are higher value homes being built in the city, in developments such as Oneota Ridge off County Road B and in Ebner Coulee. But Green said opportunities are limited when most of the city has long since been built out —and two-thirds of the lots are less than 7,000 square feet.
“It’s land inavailability,” Green said. And the prospect of high-density rental property bringing down values.
Despite a lack of undeveloped valleys, Kabat sees opportunities for development of some key properties including the former Mobil Oil and Park Plaza sites, both along waterfront.
La Crosse also has a historic downtown — something other county municipalities lack — which has attracted higher-value rental housing.
“La Crosse is still a very desirable place to live,” Kabat said.