April 16, 2021

Stevens County Times

Your spot for community news in Stevens County, Minnesota

Rural Housing Shortage Frustrates Growth

Among the most challenging and potentially expensive economic development eff orts all rural communities face is providing adequate housing  for employees of local businesses and industries.

That problem has worsened dramatically in the past year in many ways due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Historically low mortgage interest rates and the pandemic caused single-family housing starts to increase by 30 percent in 2020 over 2019. However, housing starts have hit a hurdle that not even low-interest rates can deal with easily.

The National Association of Home Builders says the average new home price increased by $24,386 over the past year. Lumber, for which there is now a significant shortage, led the way, nearly doubling since April 2020. Delivery of home appliances and furniture can take more than six months.

People stuck at home during the pandemic also started working on, or finished, home improvement projects. Millions of employees around the country required to work from home undertook remodeling projects to add home offi ces. They also expanded play and study areas for their children who weren’t in class.

Supply chains for the manufacture of home building materials and their delivery were slowed down during the pandemic, also adding costs.

Over the past couple of years, thousands of homes and businesses have been destroyed or severely damaged by floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires. They have to be rebuilt. As the Earth warms, we are told to expect the toll of these natural disasters to increase.

Without adequate housing, how does a community work to aid a local business that needs to expand its workforce by 50 people to meet its customers’ increasing demand? What if it were approached about a business that could employ 400 people? Even if we had the land ready, the economic assistance in place with help from the state, where would we house the workers? 

These new employees would bring children to our schools, shoppers to our businesses, and additional property taxes to help finance our schools, county, and cities. If they buy homes outside our area, we lose all those benefits of an increased local labor force and business expansion.

Local business leaders, city and county elected officials, and our professional administrators are continually searching for ways to address these challenges. Meanwhile, the hurdles become higher and the need greater.

Homes must be both affordable and attractive to potential new residents.

In today’s housing market, cities and counties are going to have to use increasingly innovative ways to address our critical housing shortage. It will take a private-public partnership. 

Innovation. It is sometimes an overused word. Too often, it is a word thrown around without the commitment needed to follow through. Innovation means risk-taking. 

“Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not,” the late Pablo Picasso said. To put a twist on the artist’s observation, we would add, “I have seen what could be and asked ‘How much does it cost?’” When that kind of thinking drives decisions, it puts the breaks on solving problems. The question should be, “How do we make it happen?”

We have homes sitting empty in our communities that people have moved out of, perhaps to move into an assisted living facility. The pandemic has meant their families have delayed getting together to sort through what wasn’t taken and putting the home on the market. However, in the coming months we are likely to see more of these homes come up for sale.

One idea to increase the availability of homes is to build a senior housing complex with one-level units in an area where the basic maintenance, such as snow removal, is taken care of for residents. This would allow them to move out of the multi-story homes freeing them for workers considering moving here.

However, many of these homes have been lived in for decades and need considerable updating. Older homes tend to be broken up with small rooms and kitchens. A renovated home would have an enlarged kitchen and social gathering space opening to a seating area. With a few exterior enhancements and landscaping, these homes would be attractive additions to the community.

Not everyone needs to move into single-family home early in their adult lives. Some would be content to move into duplexes or quads, which can be constructed at a lower cost.

There are homes for sale that have been moved off  a site when the buyer or owner of the lot decides to build new. Perhaps, these older homes could be purchased, renovated, and moved onto vacant lots in the community.

Free lots with all the utilities installed have been off ered to new home builders in a community for decades now as an incentive to attract new residents. What other kinds of financial assistance can a county or city, or both, off er to expand available housing?

“For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate,” British businesswoman, CEO, and writer Margaret Heff ernan said. We’ve missed that interaction where ideas feed off one another when we gather to explore the challenges we face. 

Those communities that succeed have those debates and interactions but then use them to move forward. “Creativity takes courage,” French artist Henri Matisse said. Governments aren’t built for risk, but it is only through risk that we will move forward as a community to meet the challenges of bringing new workers to our communities.

“The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible,” science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke wrote. Those communities that are open to the impossible will be the ones that others turn to as they plan for their success – we’ll be a step ahead.

Reed Anfinson