New funding for rural housing programs seen as ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ boost

By: - January 31, 2022 6:00 am
Aurora workforce housing

A year ago, Louie Rodriguez, left, and Bill Soper, work on the foundation of a new home that is part of a rural workforce housing effort in Aurora. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

AURORA, Nebraska — This city has a problem shared by lots of rural communities across the state: plenty of jobs but a shortage of housing for local workers.

Local real estate agents  relate stories of prospective buyers waiting months before they find the right house. One family, they say, lived in a trailer for several weeks while searching for the right house to buy. 

There are even tales statewide of some new workers turning down jobs after failing to find suitable housing.

Gov. Pete Ricketts said it’s stories like these that prompted him to propose investing $75 million of the state’s $1.04 billion allocation of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds in affordable housing programs.

A total of $50 million over two years would be invested in rural communities, with another $25 million spent on middle-income housing grants in the Omaha and Lincoln areas.

The ARPA funds would supersize state affordable housing programs. In the rural areas alone, the $50 million influx compares to state funding of about $17 million total over the past five years.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

“It’s such a critical need all across our state,” Ricketts said. “I’ve had numerous communities tell me they’ve had people who have accepted jobs in their community. They came to look for a house for their family and could not find one, so they had to turn down the job offer.”

The lack of so-called “workforce” housing is often blamed as a major contributor in the labor shortage in Nebraska, where nearly 70,000 jobs are unfilled across the state. 

Providing affordable starter homes in the $200,000 to $275,000 range is seen as a game changer in the effort to fill those jobs.

The recent “Blueprint Nebraska” report, compiled by a group of state business and government leaders, called for construction of 30,000 to 50,000 new housing units to fill the shortage of entry-level, affordable housing.

In Aurora, population 4,500, a housing study found that the community lacked 119 homes to satisfy its needs for the local workforce. 

“The need is great. This is hopefully a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have these sorts of resources available,” said Sheryl Hiatt, director of field operations for the Nebraska Department of Economic Development.

“We have a chance to make a real difference,” said Dan Curran, deputy director of the department.

In this central Nebraska community, employees of Aurora businesses, such as its ethanol plant, pet food factory and telecommunications company, often have to commute from nearby cities, such as Grand Island, about 20 miles away. Some workers rent apartments or homes that might not be ideal, because of the shortage of affordable houses here.

Push began in 2017

“I used to think that if we could get a manufacturing plant to locate here that provided 50 jobs, the housing would follow. But that isn’t the case,” said Gary Warren, a longtime civic leader in Aurora and former executive vice president of Hamilton Telecommunications.

Nebraska’s push for housing in rural areas began in earnest in 2017, with the passage of Legislative Bill 518 from Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg. The bill set aside $7 million for rural housing grants, which had to be matched, at least 1-to-1, with local dollars. 

Fourteen communities received grants in that first program, and the total investment in housing grew to $18 million when local matching funds were added.

The money went into revolving loan funds, meaning that the funds could be loaned out again and again as the initial loans were paid down, financing/helping to finance more and more homes.

Never ‘dreamed’ this success

Williams said that initial bill translated into investments of about $110 million, which created 800 housing units — homes, multi-family apartments and duplexes.

“I don’t think we dreamed it could be this successful,” the senator said.

In 2020, the state invested another $10 million in its Rural Workforce Housing Fund.

Aurora got one of the grants. Its $1 million grant grew into a revolving loan fund of more than $2 million after adding local matching dollars and a $250,000 grant from the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority.

On the western edge of Aurora, workers are already laying concrete foundations for homes planned in a new 64-lot housing subdivision. Builders have commitments to buy 16 of the homes already, officials said.

Kelsey Bergen, the volunteer director of the nonprofit Aurora Housing Development Corporation, said the state funds act as an incentive for local builders to take on affordable housing projects, rather than more lucrative custom homes. The funding also leads to development of larger subdivisions, putting a bigger dent in the home shortage. 

State Sen. Matt Williams
State Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg
(Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

By having the local housing corporation finance the homes, it takes a lot of the risk away from the builders, Bergen said. 

Jannelle Seim, president of the housing corporation and an executive with Hamilton Telecommunications, said the problem in Aurora is that the city is growing jobs faster than it can expand its housing. So the town welcomes the state help, she said.

Her company has at least 10 job vacancies, Seim said.

Better, newer housing options can help fill the vacant jobs across Nebraska, officials believe, and remove a barrier to allowing companies, and communities, to grow.

“The last thing we want,” Ricketts said, “is a Nebraska company locating elsewhere because they can’t find decent housing here.”

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.