November 3, 2014
GUTHRIE CENTER, Ia. – It was like a barn-raising.
Residents in this western Iowa town were tired of watching the new subdivision in town sit empty. Only one home had been built in Cameron Flats since it opened in 2008, so this spring the chairman of the local bank pitched an idea: Why don't residents raise money to build a home themselves?
Community leaders formed a nonprofit called Tiger Homes at Cameron Flats. They sent letters and bought ads in the local paper looking for 20 people to invest $5,000 each.
They found 30.
Last month, the investors broke ground on a house in Cameron Flats. They plan to list it for $278,000, and they hope it will spur others to build in their town of about 1,500.
Residents of rural towns in Iowa and around the nation see new housing as an important tool to attracting and retaining residents, maintaining school enrollments and keeping their communities on the map. In some towns, residents and officials are getting creative, trying new methods of attracting new home construction.
"You go to any small community in Iowa and you've got good people, and if they believe in their community and are willing to take some risks, those are the communities that survive, and if they don't, those are the ones that fold," said Barry Monaghan, a retired Guthrie Center banker and treasurer of Tiger Homes.
Several federal programs finance home construction in rural areas, but most are aimed at low-income housing, said Bob Rapoza, executive secretary with the Washington, D.C.-based Rural Housing Coalition, a lobbying group.
While small towns in general are losing population, energy and manufacturing jobs are driving up demand for housing in some rural areas.
"In states in the Plains and the Midwest, the economy is pretty good, and they are really looking for ways to build new housing," Rapoza said. "In places like Kansas and North Dakota, the biggest obstacle to economic growth is the lack of housing, and it sounds like Iowa is also having some of that."
Residents of Guthrie Center said they want to add the kind of housing that will keep school administrators, lawyers and hospital officials from leaving for other towns, including Lake Panorama, a vacation destination eight miles down the highway.
Attracting residents is good for not only the city's tax base, but also school enrollment. As rural school districts consolidate around the state, residents of towns like Guthrie Center see maintaining enrollment directly linked to the prosperity of their town.
"The last census showed we lost population," said City Administrator Laura Imerman. "It's a trend we want to reverse, and with strong schools and quality housing we think we can."
But it's difficult to attract residents, especially young professionals, if the town only has older homes in need of repairs, she said.
About 86 percent of Guthrie Center's homes were built before 1980, and 41 percent were built before World War II, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's America Community Survey.
In Dallas County, Iowa's fastest-growing county and home to Des Moines' western suburbs, about 37 percent of homes were built before 1980, according to census data.
"We looked at a lot of other towns around the state and those of them that seemed to be thriving had new housing developments," said Scott Gonzales, chairman of the Guthrie Center Municipal Utilities Board.
The local utility board built Cameron Flats, the town's new subdivision, in 2008, hoping to boost its customer base. Before this year, only one home had been built in the 33-lot development.
A second home is under construction now and two more lots recently sold, but they are all unrelated to the nonprofit. Construction of the nonprofit's new home is expected to start later this month and wrap in late spring or early summer.
The project has been a community-wide effort. The local bank is offering low-interest construction loans. Lake Panorama Realty is listing the home for free. Tiger Homes hired a local contractor and is offering buyers $3,500 for furnishings and $1,500 in closing costs. Lots in the subdivisions come with perks like discounts at local businesses and a year pass to the town's aquatic center.
The home will be listed for around $278,000. If it sells, members of the nonprofit will vote on whether to recoup their investments or put the money toward building another home, said Monaghan, the treasurer.
It's not the first time Guthrie Center leaders have tried to bolster their housing stock. The nonprofit Guthrie Center Development Corp. built four townhomes and two condos a decade ago hoping to attract more young professionals.
If successful, Monaghan said he thinks the town's latest housing initiative could be a model for other small towns. "We want to do whatever we can," he said. "I don't think you can remain with the status quo. You've got to keep moving. You've got to keep trying things."
Courtesy of Joel Aschbrenner, Des Moines Register, 11/01/2014