Rental reality

(First published in the April 30, 2020 issue of City Pages)

As more and more people look for apartment living, demand remains high around Wausau, especially for urban units like the soon-to-open Apartments at Riverlife.


Mitch Viegut, one of three developers of the Apartments at Riverlife, leads a walkthrough of the project, slated to open in July. Viegut, who owns a variety of other properties, says rental demand overall has been strong since the 2008 financial crisis. But interest in downtown living is the strongest.

Demand for single family housing remains strong in the Wausau area. Demand for apartments is just as high, if not higher. In fact, despite all the new apartments and condos being built, there’s still a severe shortfall in Wausau, according to developers, landlords and officials interviewed by City Pages.

How severe? According to Chris Schock, the city’s Community Development Director, the city needs another 800 units to keep up with demand in the city, even though around 400 have been built in the past three years.

Studies the city commissioned, such as the Towers Study last year, also show the city lags in available rental units compared to peer cities. That’s especially true of housing diversity—meaning a variety of different types of rental housing— something that’s been a rallying cry from city officials in the past four years. Schock points out recent new projects such as Urban West, the townhouses on Third Street, and the new apartments in the former Sav-O supply building as examples of that type of building.

“Nationally, multi-family demand had been at record highs, driven by the two symbiotic demographic trends,” Schock says. It’s a two-punch trend happening at the same time: young professionals are starting families and buying homes later in life, and empty-nesters downsizing to urban options. Both sets are seeking smaller living space with the convenience of walkable amenities, Schock says.

S.C. Swiderski, a Mosinee-based developer, is counting on that demand. The company has four buildings under construction right now, says Business Development Manager Jacqui Miller, including sites in Wausau, Marshfield. The demand is strong across the board, from both entry level rental prices to luxury apartments.

Local just north of the Wausau West High School campus, Swiderski’s 65-unit Urban West apartments completed last year have seen a mix of empty nesters and young professionals, Miller says. And many younger adults are staying in rentals longer these days, she says. The biggest demand so far has been from the empty nesters. A project soon being built in Weston offers luxury single-floor apartments, specifically aimed at empty nesters who told the company they prefer a single-level living space.

Higher-end apartment living is a trend the company is expecting to continue, Miller says. Swiderski plans to break ground on two more buildings, and possibly a third this year yet, and has 15 total projects in the works.

“Since the economic downturn of 2008, we’ve seen strong demand in multi-family housing,” Miller says. The demand in Wausau has tended toward luxury rentals, where in other areas it’s a mix. A project ongoing in Eau Claire, for instance, has a multi-building site with different price ranges all in one neighborhood — from price points ranging from $750 to $2,000.

Demand from suburbs to downtown


S.C. Swiderski Business Development Manager Jacqui Miller, says their Urban West apartments, completed last year, have seen a mix of both empty nesters and young professionals.

Increasing the number of rental units is also a priority in Weston, says Planning and Development Director Jennifer Higgins says. According to the Housing Affordability Report completed in 2019, nearly 60% of the total units in the Weston area were owner-occupied, leaving only 36.9% rental occupied units. (Nearly 4% of units were vacant.)

Higgins says there are three multi-family housing projects under review and development currently, and the village updated its comprehensive plan with more zoning availability for rentals. Two plans the village created — the County Road X Corridor plan and the Schofield Avenue Corridor plan — both call for more, and more diverse, multi-family housing units, Higgins says.

“As a village we have lots to talk about in regards to housing,” Higgins says “We have a definite need for more single family and multi-family housing options of all kinds.”

But many of those conversations will have to wait while Weston, like everywhere else, prioritizes the response to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, one high profile residential project has proceeded through the pandemic lockdown: Riverlife in Wausau, now in the final stage of construction, with a July 1 scheduled opening.

The need for downtown housing is obvious, says Mitch Viegut, one of three developers working on the Riverlife development just north of downtown. Viegut, who owns a variety of other properties, says rental demand overall has been strong since the 2008 financial crisis. But interest in downtown living is the strongest, especially for the young professionals set. Viegut tells of a young man who was hired at Ruder Ware law firm, and rented an apartment near downtown only to learn that this particular apartment building was geared toward seniors. “Oh man, I made a mistake,” the young attorney told Viegut.

Viegut, who is working on the project along with developers Bob Ohde and Fernando Riveron, says the Riverlife building will start filling that housing gap. The four-story, 75-unit apartment building will have a mix of 1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom units that overlook downtown Wausau and or the Wisconsin River and Riverlife Park.

Roughly 25% of the building is already pre-leased, according to information from Pfefferle Management. These early and potential tenants so far are all in the 55 and older demographic. “They’re the ones thinking three or more months ahead,” Viegut says on a recent walkthrough of the apartments. He expects more young professionals will look at leasing apartments when they’re actually finished. 

The top floors are starting to look like apartments, with the drywall up and many already with tubs and showers installed. Lower floors still look like rows of two-by-fours waiting for their walls.

The project is one of three Viegut’s group has planned for Riverlife. Construction will start next for a 25-unit condo housing, followed by a commercial building. They are the third developers accepted by the city, after its first developer, Mike Frantz, defaulted on the project due to financial problems; then Gorman and Company was awarded the project only to punt on it to focus on a renovation of The Landmark building downtown instead.

The city has a host of other apartment projects in development:

The proposed Plaza redevelopment in Wausau would turn the tower hotel on 17th Avenue into a Best Western, and include two building pads, each 15,000 square feet, potentially for multi-unit housing.

Work is currently underway to transform the former Mountain Lanes building near the Plaza Hotel into a 58-unit apartment building.

New housing projects also include smaller, but high end projects such as townhouses developed by Blenker Companies of Amherst. The company has built townhouses on the city’s north downtown area near Riverlife, as well as 20 units on Thomas Street made possible by the reconstruction of the street largely completed last year.

So far, those in the rental business say demand has remained strong. One landlord, on background, says they haven’t had a vacancy in years. Liz Warnke, with Diamond Property Management, says demand has remained steady for the past few years. Rent prices have increased however, Warnke says, and there seem to be renters with larger budgets. “Even with the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent shutdown, there are still quite a few people searching for rental units,” Warnke says.

Maxed out affordable housing

Data also shows a need for affordable housing. The city’s federally funded housing units, under the Housing and Urban Development Department, have remained nearly full. Occupancy at the 149-unit Riverview Towers, for instance, has hovered between 96-100% in 2019, according to data from the Community Development Authority.

At Riverview Terrace, with 36 units, the occupancy has ranged between 86% to 92%, and the CDA’s 46 units have been nearly full, falling only as low as 93% but were 100% full for four of the 12 months of 2019, and for the first three months of 2020.

Wausau Public Housing Manager Betsy Noel says their units have been pretty much full, and often with waiting lists, for some time. Riverview Towers has been full since 2013 when it underwent a renovation by Gorman and Company.

The Community Development Authority just approved terms on Tuesday with Emmerich Associates to redevelop the site of the former Ponderosa Motel, located at 2101 Grand Avenue. The motel served as temporary and low cost housing for many individuals, until a fire gutted the building in August 2015. The proposal would see the property turned into an eight-unit apartment complex.