How Can Small Communities Make the Most of Housing Studies?

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Center for Small Towns is beginning a series of projects on rural housing, in response to the great amount of interest and enthusiasm on the topic around western Minnesota recently. One topic of focus for this project was the nature of housing studies in rural Minnesota- how do they work and how useful are they for communities? In learning more about this, we found that many small communities have housing studies done for a variety of reasons, but they often have trouble implementing the recommendations suggested in the study.

We spoke with two housing consultants, Scott Knudson and Steven Griesert about the best ways to implement housing studies, and the benefits and challenges communities experience in following through on housing study recommendations. The following are a few of the biggest take-aways from this conversation:

Community planning phase

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Perhaps the most important point of the discussion was that a housing study is not a goal in and of itself, but rather something to give direction to a community’s goals for the future. Typically, a housing study may contain a broad range of housing recommendations addressing various issues, and a community might choose about five or six to prioritize and work on. For that reason, a community planning phase after a housing study is necessary in order to prioritize the recommendations that the community wants to happen and planning how these goals will be achieved. This type of forum where all members of the community have a say, especially bankers, investors, contractors, local developers, and others who will likely be directly involved in any type of housing development process, is an important part of successfully using a housing study to the community’s advantage.

Some examples of communities in Minnesota that have had community forums to discuss recommendations from a housing study include Mankato and Alexandria. Alexandria hosted a forum with the whole town, and had community members use post-it notes to express their ideas about what should be the top priorities for housing development. This helped them to go beyond just doing the housing study, and actually using the study to make positive changes for their community. Both of these examples are larger cities, but groups such as the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership and the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission have also worked with smaller communities on planning and prioritizing efforts.

Luckily, there are no shortage of dedicated leaders in the rural midwest who care about their towns and want to make them better.

Community Leadership: a community’s most important asset

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Communities that have successfully implemented housing studies seem to share certain characteristics. One aspect of a community that lends itself to this kind of success is community leadership that is motivated and able to invest in the community. Luckily, there are no shortage of dedicated leaders in the rural midwest who care about their towns and want to make them better. Some examples include:

  • Perham, Minnesota: community leaders invested their own resources into an affordable apartment project, because they wanting to invest in their community
  • Armour, South Dakota: 5 people are researching the possibility of investing their own resources into a subdivision to help the community
  • Centerville, South Dakota, a very small community: leaders in the area were able to get young families and couples who had grown up in Centerville to move back home.

Now of course, not everyone has the ability to contribute monetary resources, and leadership in small towns may sometimes be stretched thin, but the motivation and energy that many leaders have is enough to make an important difference.

Challenges: it’s a matter of perspective

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On the other hand, when motivation and optimism among community leaders is replaced by negativity and lack of cooperation, this inhibits community development. If someone wants to move into a town, it’s harder if local leaders express negative attitudes about the town or aren’t helpful toward the person considering living there, and then homeownership and/or employment in the town do not grow. This contributes to apathy in the approach to community development, resulting in downtowns and main streets that aren’t as inviting to newcomers as they could be.

Another challenge for communities in terms of housing development is that there is often a difference in terms of state funding between job growth communities and cities with more affordable housing. Job growth can result in more state funding “points” for additional housing development than homeownership. Cities located commuting distance of employment centers may offer more affordable ownership options, but may be less successful in applying for State resources. This can create a disparity in which communities receive more funding, and are therefore able to put more resources into making their communities better.

One final problem with housing in many communities is that, while affordable may be housing available, this housing is often older and may not meet the standards of the people who are looking for housing. Better quality housing may affordable enough, based on the wages that are being paid in the city.

Solutions and Successful Examples

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However, there is an extent to which these challenges can be overcome with a more positive perspective. As mentioned above, when community leaders believe in their communities and are willing to put in time and effort, this makes a world of difference.

Two possible solutions to the lack of affordable housing in small cities can include housing roll-over and “rehab.” Rehabilitation has been used successfully in many small communities to take dilapidated housing or structures that are underutilized, and fixing it up and making it serve the community’s needs better. Roll-over attempts to create new housing that is better suited for some residents, such as maintenance-free apartments for seniors, which allows them to sell their single family home to a younger family.

Additionally, as Steve Griesert pointed out, the way downtown looks is very important to people considering moving into a town, and people with storefronts downtown have good ideas for how to improve things, so leaders should listen to them! These changes result in towns that are much more welcoming to new homeowners and new businesses.

There are benefits to many different types of development. Sometimes the reason that negative attitudes occur in leadership is that communities don’t see their own assets. So in some ways, it’s a matter of perspective that can help determine whether communities are or aren’t successful in implementing their housing studies.

Overall, conducting a housing study can be extremely helpful, since some of the benefits of housing studies includes stimulating interest on housing issues, and providing strategies and recommendations. But it’s important to remember that it doesn’t stop there: a housing study is just the beginning, and true progress comes from taking steps to implement the study’s recommendations! How exactly are those steps taken? We’ll be back soon with another post on that topic, from a conversation with UMVRDC about how they use housing studies.

If you’re interested in more information about housing and housing studies, please visit the links below!

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