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[This is the final installment in a series of articles examining the challenges facing rural Iowa communities. The series is a product of research conducted by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, an independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan news service located in Iowa City.]
By Randy Pauson and Zoe Seiler
In Wayne County, workforce and housing needs are ever-present dilemmas facing the county’s small communities. County Supervisor Dave Dotts said workforce and housing often go hand in hand.
Dotts said a battery factory in Corydon, East Penn Manufacturing Co Inc., plans to expand and add 400 new jobs. While hiring more workers might be beneficial for the company and the town’s tax base, the influx of more people into the community will highlight problems finding needed housing that is adequate for new workers.
“Because people have left, you know, a lot of the housing has gone downhill,” Dotts said. “So that’s a big challenge, finding workers and then finding housing for them.”
Dotts said the factory has been attracting people from other communities in the county, like Humeston and Seymour, as well as people from nearby counties.
He said middle-income housing is needed for working people. The median house value in Wayne County between 2013 and 2017 was $74,700, while the median household income was $42,434, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In Humeston, local Realtor and small business owner Leigh Ann Coffey said she has struggled to find homes for young families moving to town. She described one instance where she was unable to find a suitable home for a family with six children; instead, she had to look in Corydon to find an appropriate house.
But while several existing homes in Humeston have fallen into disrepair, Coffey said she sees signs that things might be changing. “I think the change that I’m seeing is that people are starting to move into town that are putting money into the homes,” she said.
Three hours to the north, in rural Hancock County, Jill Kramer identified similar housing obstacles facing her county.
Kramer, executive director of the Hancock County Economic Development Corp., said workforce needs— particularly attracting new employees to the county—and affordable housing topped the list of problems facing Hancock County.
Even though plenty of large employers, such as the motor home manufacturer Winnebago Industries, are in the region communities have had to adopt new strategies to bring in new workers, Kramer said.
Hancock Economic Development Corp. holds employee attraction workshops, featuring business experts who help local businesses seek new talent.
Kramer said the workshops are part of a series throughout the year to inform local businesses about best practices regarding a range of topics, including how to best retain and attract new workers.
“We’re going to show best practices that are going on in different states, on maybe how they could be utilizing that, because we’re all going to be competing for the same workforce,” she said.
Still, in rural areas particularly, Kramer said, there’s a stigma of low-income housing that can potentially turn people away. “People, you know, have a stereotype in their head of what low-income is, so that’s a challenge,” said Kramer, who is also a part-time Realtor.
The median household income in Hancock County from 2013 to 2017 was $57,840, while the median house value in the county was $97,600 during that same period, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In Allamakee County, McCormick said housing exists but too much of it is adequate or affordable. Rental properties are in short supply, she said. In some instances several run-down houses that need to be fixed up or else torn down are available while, she said.
“You know, somebody’s not going to move to your community and take a job if there’s nowhere to live,” McCormick said.
“I think the change that I’m seeing is that people are starting to move into town that are putting money into the homes.” — Leigh Ann Coffey, owner of Sweet Southern Sass and a Realtor in Humeston, Iowa.
She and Kramer acknowledged state efforts to help Iowa communities with housing difficulties.
Kramer said cities in Hancock County, such as Forest City and Garner, have received assistance from the Workforce Housing Loan program. That program provides loans to the communities at low interest rates to help pay for needed housing projects.
On a local level, she said, towns such as Britt also are giving away free lots to people who agree to build a house on the property. She said the town has a little more than one dozen lots ready to be given to prospective builders.
In Allamakee County, only one community — Postville — received financial aid to assist with housing sustainability in 2018, according to the IowaWatch Simpson Journalism Project.
McCormick said communities in the county have conducted housing studies to better assess their needs when it comes to available homes and shortages. “You know, maybe they need rental, maybe they need duplex, maybe they need more single-family housing, things like that,” she said.
Exodus of young professionals
McCormick said retaining young adult workers is key to making sure rural areas in Iowa continue to stay vital. However, the realities of the rural Iowan economy, dominated by the agricultural and manufacturing industries, might deter college-educated professionals from locating to rural communities.
According to the American Community Survey, the median age in Humeston was about 47 in 2017, a number that has changed little since the 2000 census.
Swenson said a sharp decline in workers age 35 to 44 in non-metropolitan Iowa has an impact on manufacturers in small towns trying to hire workers. “Larger cities outbid rural areas,” he said.
If he were to ask a class of undergraduate students from Iowa how many of them would move back to their hometown after getting their degrees, Swenson said fewer than 5 percent would raise their hands.
“They already are oriented to go someplace else,” he said. “They don’t come back.”
Federal money has a role
Beyond work by the state task forces, small towns also benefit from aid from federal government agencies, such as the USDA, Small Business Administration and Environmental Protection Agency.
“What the state can do is important but if you’re a small town you have to look at lots of different sources to make things happen,” said Bill Menner, executive director of the Iowa Rural Development Council.
“The state has a lot less invested in rural Iowa than the federal government,” Menner said. “The federal government spends many, many, many times more in rural communities than the state does.”
Humeston is a great example of that, Menner said. “USDA helped finance their water system,” he said. “When I was the state director of USDA Rural Development, during my seven and a half years there, we made loans and grants of about $5 billion. That’s just one agency of the federal government.”
Whether or not they have received millions in government aid or none at all, rural counties in Iowa — especially those not connected to micropolitan centers — face a host of economic challenges that financial assistance has not resolved.