Rebecca Lewis’ last home was a two-bedroom trailer with holes in the floor and broken windows.
She didn’t want to raise her three children there, but it was all she could afford.
Lewis of McPherson is college-educated and works three jobs, but she, like many Kansans, has struggled with finding affordable housing. Growing up in poverty, she has lived in 71 homes in her lifetime.
In 2011, Lewis took in a mother and her four children who were about to be homeless.
The families had trouble scheduling bath times. The children fought. Tension grew between the adults.
“There was a tremendous toxicity that developed from that many people living in a house,” Lewis said.
Today Lewis lives in a four-bedroom home subsidized with HUD funding and she is an advocate for affordable housing. She and others in her community are searching for solutions to a lack of adequate housing.
This lack of housing is leading to increased cost for home buyers and renters and is hurting not only individuals, but economic development as well.
Inventory for housing is tight across the board in Kansas and, in some rural markets, it is considered extremely tight, said Luke Bell, vice president of government affairs for the Kansas Association of Realtors.
In a balanced housing market, there is general enough housing stock for six months of sales. The statewide average is currently about 4.3 months. McPherson had 4.23 months of housing stock as of the month of August, said John Holthus, owner and broker of Four Season Reality.
“Right now, there are three things that make a home attractive — price, condition and location,” he said. “If a home meets all three of those criteria, it likely will be on the market for only weeks.”
The average time to sell a house in a market the size of McPherson is 128 days.
Rural communities may not have had the big housing boom and bust places like Florida, California and Nevada had in 2009, but rural communities have had a slow growth in housing development that has not kept up with demand.
Bell said communities need a broad range of housing to meet the needs of every segment of the population from young families to seniors. The lack of housing stock creates a snowball effect.
Those home buyers who wish to move up to bigger homes can’t because the housing stock is not available. Seniors also aren’t moving out of their homes because appropriate housing is not available. Older homes that could be starter homes don’t become available as a result. Young families who wish to buy homes have to continue to rent, which drives up rent prices across the spectrum.
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Slow growth in housing
Historically rural communities have seen slow growth in their housing stock.
In a metro area, a contractor may be able to build a development with 15 to 20 homes. In a rural community, developers may build only one or two homes at a time.
Contractors also make more money on more expensive homes. They have less incentive to develop homes in $100,000 to $120,000 range, which is what is considered a starter home for many families.
Fred Bentley, director of rental development for the Kansas Housing Resource Corporation, said homes in some rural communities will appraise for less than it costs contractors to build them. Some communities are trying to assist home buyers by buying down the cost of homes to their appraised values so prospective home buyers can qualify for loans.
Harder to get loans
Further complicating the housing dilemma has been changes to banking regulations making getting home loans more difficult.
Lenders are requiring the highest credit scores in the last 15 years — at least 680 for most loan applicants, said Chad Alexander, of Peoples Bank in McPherson.
If home buyers have low-incomes and live in a rural area, they might qualify for rural development loans.
However, many middle income families don’t qualify for any assistance, and some niche home programs have disappeared since the housing bubble burst.
Some small banks have had to leave the home loan industry entirely because they can’t keep up with the regulations, and big banks are reluctant to loan individuals and contractors money for small projects, Alexander said.
“Housing has been most difficult for our segment of the population, and we have seen many changes in rural America,” he said.
Housing costs outpace income
Incomes are not keeping up with the housing costs.
The financial problems of 2009 have taken many families out of the home market and increased the number of renters, which Bentley said he saw as a national trend.
Supply and demand would normally keep rents steady, but high demand means the market is setting rent prices.
Apartment Ratings, an online resource, listed the average cost for apartments in Wichita during a nine-year period. Between 2008 and 2010, apartment rents rose 18 percent from an average of $473 to $558 for a one-bedroom. That has since leveled out some to an average of $533 for a one-bedroom unit.
Priced out of the market
As prices continue to rise in the rental markets, low-income families are priced out of the market, Lewis said.
Page 3 of 5 - Most of the families Lewis works with are living on an income of $800 to $1,200 a month. They can do what Lewis did and rent or buy a mobile home, but utility costs on substandard housing can be $250 to $350 a month.
Renting a multi-bedroom home or apartment can cost $700 to $900 per month, she said. That is if they become available. The waiting list for some apartment complexes in McPherson are as long as two years.
Programs such as HUD, Habitat for Humanity and rural housing have many regulations. Families who have been in generation poverty carry a lot of baggage and many are not be able to meet all the requirements of these programs.
McPherson Housing Authority Director Chris Goodson said there is a human loss when families don’t have adequate, stable housing.
“We have people who are not obviously homeless, but they are living on someone’s couch,” she said. “Having a house is a part of a life that is safe. When a child is growing up, they need a stable home to become a good person. Whatever that place may be, they need to a place that is home. That is so important.”
Economic effects on the community
Lack of housing is not just a social issue. Communities, such as McPherson, are experiencing economic consequences as a result of housing shortages.
A recovering economy has meant jobs are coming to rural communities, but housing has not kept pace.
Go McPherson recently completed a commuting study. The data revealed 58 percent of the McPherson workforce is commuting to their jobs. Fifty percent of respondents said the wait for vacancies was too long to live in the city and almost 19 percent said costs and conditions of units were also factors.
David Sell, director of energy operations for Mid Kansas Coop in McPherson, will be one of those commuters.
He looked for a home in McPherson after relocating here from Iowa, but found choices were limited in his price range.
He and his wife recently closed on a house in Hutchinson, which is about a 25-minute drive from his job.
“I think the value was different,” Sell said. “For our money, we were able to get quite a bit more house in Hutchinson. I was surprised in our range of $250,000 to $300,000, you can get a lot better quality house where I’m from in Council Bluff, Iowa.”
Hospira is a provider of injectable drugs and infusion technologies with a plant in McPherson employing about 1,500 people. More than 500 of those employees live outside of McPherson and commute to work.
Page 4 of 5 - Pamela Hamilton, human resources director for Hospira, said the lack of housing can affect turnover rates.
“Commuting can be quite a commitment,” Hamilton said. “Some people get hired here and decide commuting is not the best thing for their family.”
Nation Pizza and Foods buses in two vans of workers a day from Wichita to fill production jobs. The workers, who make just above minimum wage, can’t afford housing in McPherson, Denise Gegen, Nation Pizza human resources manager, said.
Those workers who do move here often live with co-workers because they can’t find rentals in their price range, Gegen said.
Bentley of Kansas Housing Resource Corporation said commuting is a common response to lack of housing in rural America. Commuting results in communities losing the full economic benefits of job creation. They lose enrollment in their schools, tax revenue and retail sales, among other benefits.
Hamilton said social capital also is lost.
“People who commute, generally, don’t stay in the community after work hours,” Hamilton said. “We miss that economic layer. They tend not to participate locally in philanthropy projects or events or participate with the United Way or the YMCA or the SPCA or other local organizations. Those 500 return to their own communities where they are going to go out dinner and coach their children’s teams.”
Housing relief will come slowly. Housing shortages in rural communities have built to a head over years and sometimes decades.
The Kansas Legislature allocated $2 million for a moderate income housing program administered by the Kansas Housing Resource Corporation. A city or county applies for these funds and then works with a contractor, developer or nonprofit to develop the housing. However, Bentley admits $2 million is not much when dealing with the current housing problem.
Communities can help builders by making infrastructure available, tearing down dilapidated buildings to make space for new development and identifying areas where in-fill can occur.
Some communities are offering tax credits for those who build new homes in their communities.
Lewis said she hopes her community can work with private developers to fix up homes and offer them to low- to moderate-income families at reasonable rents.
The Kansas Department of Commerce also has offered assistance to communities that wish to perform housing assessments.
As the wheels of finance and bureaucracy turn, individuals like Rebecca Lewis wait and watch for the right time to capture their American dream — home ownership.
Lewis has increased her income and paid down debt. Her goal is to own a home by 2014. She wants home 72 to be her last, but she is uncertain if her dream will come true.
Page 5 of 5 - “I am ready to put down roots,” Lewis said. “I want to put my kids in a community and stay there. I think McPherson has a lot to offer.”
She forced a smile, and said, “We’ll see.”