The solution starts with regions pulling together
New and Covid-driven interest in living rurally and working remotely is a real economic opportunity for small and out-of-the-way communities in west central Missouri. However, a lack of housing options could nip that opportunity in the bud.
One wakeup call is a new report from rural Benton County, home to Cole Camp, Lincoln, and Warsaw. To keep up with projected population growth, the Benton County Housing Study calls for home building at nearly twice the recent rate. It also points out that the bulk of housing needed is in the modest price range, which does not produce the profits that private sector builders need.
Therein lies the dilemma for rural regions facing historic community and economic development opportunity. Can they muster the private-public collaboration and innovation needed to ramp up housing supply to meet strong and growing demand?
Regional Meeting May 24
This question is the topic of a “5th Monday” regional networking luncheon 12:00 p.m. to 1:15 p.m. Monday May 24. Our Rural Housing Opportunity will feature on-the-ground perspective and invite input on next steps. Registration and more information.
Our Rural Housing Opportunity is a post-pandemic re-start of semi-quarterly 5th Monday community economic development gatherings. They are organized by the START HERE Business Acceleration Network and hosted by community development corporation New Growth with West Central Missouri Community Action Agency.
The opportunity cost of doing nothing with housing right now is huge, said Mark Dawson, Economic Development Director for the City of Clinton in Henry County. Dawson will speak on May 24 for Our Rural Housing Opportunity.
He explains that communities lose in multiple ways. They lose when businesses do not grow or locate there because their people cannot find or afford homes. They also lose when a lack of housing forces employees to commute long distances to jobs rather than live near them.
“You lose that economic activity plus you lose that brain power, Dawson said. “They could be your Sunday school teachers. They could be volunteers for youth sports and activities. You lose that because they’re commuting from someplace else.”
“That is the reason why housing is so important,” he said. “It is the reason why we think it’s probably the Number 1 goal for 2021, for our community to address somehow the housing issue,” he said.
[Listen to more of Mark Dawson’s economic development insight on rural housing in this Hometown Revival podcast produced by New Growth and Vernon County Economic Development with the START HERE network.]
Home building had already slowed to a crawl in west central Missouri, as in rural America overall, after the 2008-2009 global financial crisis slammed the construction industry, knocking many workers and firms out of the business. This Great Recession drove remaining developers, builders and lenders to lower-risk projects in higher population areas and higher-dollar markets. It also exacerbated problems that rural housing always had, such as a lack of comparable properties, which mortgage lenders rely on for valuing homes and making loans.
Now, the global pandemic has further complicated matters with its disruption of global supply chains. Materials have become scarce. Prices are rising precipitously. Construction in out-of-the-way areas has become even more costly and risky as workers and investors move even farther away from smaller rural markets.
Concerted, creative, and collaborative action is needed. As one expert put it recently in the Wall Street Journal: “It’s possible to resolve the crisis, but rural communities need innovative solutions and a little political will.”
Innovation and Opportunity
“The biggest thing we need is public-private partnership,” said Vernon County Economic Developer Ben Vickers. He is working with local stakeholders to conduct a housing study for the city of Nevada and Vernon County as part of an overall program of building up quality of life and attracting people and businesses to the community.
“The public side of it is important because a nonprofit can break even on different types of developments like duplexes that we need,” he said.
Finding local people and organizations with the interest and ability to invest time and money is one step. An example of a local private developer ready to do more is Jeff Droz, a native of Rich Hill in Bates County, Missouri. On the nonprofit side, there is Chris Richardson McQueen, Chief Housing Enrichment Officer at the nonprofit West Central Missouri Community Action Agency (West Central). Both will speak May 24 at Our Rural Housing Opportunity.
Local Assets and Energy
Droz built his busy Roof Power Solar business in his hometown. Now he wants to build high-quality, affordable “net zero” (no electric bill) homes in Rich Hill as part of that rural community’s revival.
“I’m confident enough in the market potential of these homes to have spent my own money building one,” Droz said of his first 1,200 square foot, net zero and electric car-ready home. The asking price of $150,000 is even more affordable when you take utilities, or an average $150 off electric bills, out of the monthly carrying cost.
“We’ve had a lot of interest in the concept, and one potential buyer so far,” he said.
West Central comes to the conversation with experience building and operating 11 multifamily housing properties in seven counties, as well as partnership in other properties. In total, West Central houses nearly 500 households. It is one among many nonprofit and private organizations in the region that could help make the housing difference through collaboration.
Building collaboration across communities, organizations, and individuals is a process and requires innovation. The May 24 meeting Our Rural Housing Opportunity will also feature a number of communities that have started down this housing collaboration road as part of their involvement with the Growth in the Rural Ozarks program.
On their minds are potential new residents, returning residents, and people who may now be able to remain in rural Missouri because of remote work potential. All these are key to rural revival. More housing options are key to their commitment and investment.