A Key To Growth: Solving Workforce Housing Needs

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

In communities throughout rural America, one of the primary challenges in attracting people to fill the vacant jobs our industries and businesses are working hard to fill is providing affordable housing. The problem exists with both rental properties and the housing stock for sale.

In meeting this challenge, numerous questions need to be studied and answered.

What is affordable housing? It is a question that will have to look at the cost of renting or buying in relation to what working families are earning.

What do young families want for housing when they come to a community? Do they want to rent, or buy?

What kinds of housing do they find attractive and what turns them off?

Does the city subsidize the construction of a townhome complex so that rents can be lower?

Does it create its own fund for renovating homes that are outdated?

Does it buy the house the school builds each year and place it on a vacant lot the city owns?

What are other communities doing that is proving successful in providing workforce housing?

There are more significant questions here as well. How do you instill community loyalty and pride? How do you instill a sense of belonging in a community that makes people call it home?

These are a few of the questions that will have to be addressed.

 “Providing housing for a community or region’s population is complex and dynamic. A healthy housing market should be able to provide housing for most people and their diverse needs through a combination of natural churn and new construction,” Kelly Asche of the Center for Rural Policy and Development writes in a study of rural workforce housing.

“In rural areas, however, economic and demographic forces are at work creating a housing shortage that many communities say is keeping them from attracting much-needed new workers,” he writes.

In a study of why communities are struggling to provide workforce housing Asche found two principal reasons:

- The considerable increase in construction costs that are pricing younger families out of the market for starter homes and skewing the market in strange ways; and

- The relatively higher percentage of seniors living in rural communities, which, combined with their tendency to want to age in place, the emphasis on helping them do so, and the lack of assisted living facilities in rural communities, is causing not only a bottleneck in houses coming on the market but also increasing the likelihood that the number of dilapidated housing will increase in the future.

 Another challenge is that though there may be many homes for sale in a rural community, the houses were built in the 1940s to 1960s. As the people who live in them have gotten older, they have invested less in upgrading them. When they do come on the market, young people find the outdated décor, old appliances, small kitchens with old cupboards, and dank basements unattractive.

At the Benson Economic Development Authority  (EDA) meeting Monday morning, Board Member Dr. Rick Horecka provided another insight into the reason we struggle to provide young people with the housing they want – they just might be adverse to settling down in general.

“Our generation dreamed of owning a house, but that is not necessarily what they are interested in,” he said. “They want flexibility, so they are willing to live in rental property.” A lot of young people are not putting down roots for long, even among the medical professionals hired at Swift County-Benson Health Services, Horecka said.

Their wish for mobility is one reason why the community needs to assess the quality, affordability, and availability of its rental properties, he said.

There are other challenges as well in getting people to move to the community and settle down. The down payment can be more than they can afford; they may own a house in another town they can’t sell; they may feel insecure in the longevity of their employment; their spouse may be employed in that other community; their children could be enrolled in another school district they prefer and they don’t want to pull them out; or it may be their hometown with lots of friends and family around.

A more subtle challenge may be overcoming a community’s unrecognized unwelcoming ways. Being welcoming is more than just being friendly and saying hello to someone new when you run into them.

“Being a welcoming community means deliberately going out of your way to make newcomers, outsiders, and immigrants feel like they are part of the community,” he writes. “It means having them over for a barbeque to introduce them to your community of friends. It means seeking them out and making them feel like your community is their home.”

As it looks to facilitate economic development in the community with the help of $20 million that will be coming from Xcel Energy ratepayer-financed Renewable Development Fund, the City of Benson is looking at hiring an economic development/housing director.

City Manager Rob Wolfington has asked the EDA and the Benson City Council to consider where the emphasis should be placed in looking at the primary strengths of the person hired to fill the position: economic development or housing? The city is hoping to have the new person on board by the end of the year.

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