Communities across the country are now grappling with a lack of affordable housing, a disease long associated with rapidly growing urban areas.
I used to think that if the market took care of whatever problem rural communities face, it would take care of housing. If we could get proper jobs, education, and health care, new homes would sprout like morels in the spring. It was a naive view.
Lack of affordable housing hampers the ability of rural towns to attract workers and slows business growth. Quality housing is also linked to health and well-being, and home ownership remains the primary means for workers to acquire equity and become homeowners.
Small towns need quality, affordable housing for people of all financial backgrounds. Solving this shortage will require multi-faceted solutions, community involvement, and state and federal policies.
Building and upgrading housing costs money. Ultimately, we need public investment to make this happen on a meaningful scale.
For its part, the Center for Rural Affairs added single-family mortgages to our programs in 2021. We now provide loans for homeownership, rehabilitation and repair up to $100,000 in rural Nebraska.
House prices continue to rise even in rural communities that have historically benefited from lower housing costs. It used to be that you could easily find a modest old house in the hills and plains of the Midwest for less than $100,000. Today, this is becoming a rarity.
Meanwhile, stagnating wages and inflation have made dreams of home ownership even more out of reach for many.
Nearly half of Nebraska’s homes predate the Nixon presidency. In the village of Stuart, 68% of homes were built before 1970, according to a recent report by the Flatwater Free Press. Many small towns are struggling with similar statistics.
Rural America has been slow to build new homes for a variety of reasons, including lack of contractors, high cost of importing materials, low profit margins, low population growth, and weak economies of scale. .
Our aging building stock is now a challenge and an opportunity. Older homes tend to be more affordable to buy, but they often have a backlog of maintenance issues.
Recognizing the complex challenge, several Midwestern states have made significant investments in workforce housing during their recent legislative sessions. Housing investment is also a priority for the Biden administration, although legislative progress has stalled.
Ensuring affordable, quality housing for all who call our communities home is an essential development strategy in small towns. As we move forward, the Center for Rural Affairs will continue to place greater emphasis on this cornerstone of community health and well-being.
Brian Depew is Executive Director of the Center for Rural Affairs. In college, he wrote a master’s thesis on the moral obligation to save the family farm.