As we work to continually improve the quality of living and the viability of our communities in our corner of Southeast Nebraska, a constant problem is the availability of housing for our workforce. To keep our rural communities thriving, we must have jobs. So, we work to recruit businesses. But businesses won’t come if there aren’t workers and workers won’t come if there’s not affordable housing.
As an 8-year member of the Nebraska Economic Development Commission and as a Nebraska Realtor for the past 30 years, I’ve seen this problem first hand. Just this past May, Nebraska had the lowest unemployment rate in the nation. That’s great news, but it comes with a problem. Businesses need more workers in order to expand and grow their businesses. Because of our low unemployment rate, employers typically pay more and we have a better quality of life than our competitors in surrounding states, but we lack housing for a workforce. Lack of housing leads to a labor shortage which means communities are unable to land an employer with good paying jobs moving into their community or moving into an abandoned building in their town. We want workers living in our local communities, enrolling their children in our local schools and paying local taxes. We don’t want them to have to commute because of a lack of local housing.
Our neighbors in Iowa, Missouri and Kansas are having similar housing issues and trying to be creative. Some are taking out millions in local bonds to fix rundown housing and spur local development as well as streamlining housing permits.
I commend the great work being done by the Rural Workforce Housing Fund, the Nebraska Affordable Housing Trust Fund and regional entities like the Southeast Nebraska Development District (SENDD) and Southeast Nebraska Community Action (SENCA). We need smart people working to tackle this ever-present problem.
The challenges are legion – availability of land for housing vs. important agriculture uses and corresponding land prices, federal HUD standards, a myriad of issues with short-term mobile housing, availability of adequate financing, as well as the number of older rural homes that are in need of extensive repair (most homes in Southeast Nebraska were built in the 1960’s or earlier!) – just to name a few of the knots that have to be untangled.
One significant new tool will be the ability of “Land Banks” for rural communities to help develop vacant and tax-delinquent properties. Land Banks help rural communities deal with blighted properties. But we must be constantly on the lookout for other tools as well – housing incentives, zoning laws, neighborhood revitalization efforts as well as engaging with businesses to help fund affordable housing initiatives. I look forward to being an advocate for workforce housing in Southeast Nebraska in the Legislature.