- Associated Press - Saturday, May 24, 2014

DONIPHAN, Neb. (AP) - For the last five years, Erica Ritz has been looking for a place to live in Doniphan.

With a husband and three kids, she needs something to rent with either four bedrooms or three bedrooms and a basement. Ritz scours Craigslist and rental and real estate groups on Facebook, and she regularly checks in with people who own properties there.

She has even looked into renting two two-bedroom apartments. Every time something does become available in the town of about 900, however, it’s gone by the afternoon - and what is available is expensive.

“Once people get in there, they don’t usually leave,” she told The Grand Island Independent (https://bit.ly/1jVRgBg). “There’s tons of people trying to get in.”

The situation has left Ritz and her family to settle in Grand Island. She and her husband have a 16-year-old daughter attending Grand Island Central Catholic and a 13-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter attending Doniphan-Trumbull Public Schools. They sometimes drive the 20 minutes back and forth four or five times a day.

With her younger children thriving in the schools and the small town feel, however, Ritz said she won’t stop looking.

She isn’t alone.

The problem of finding quality, affordable housing extends far beyond Doniphan to many of the towns in the rural areas across the state. And as Grand Island begins to discuss its own housing concerns, people in those towns are left wondering what to do next.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development progress report, 1,299 Nebraskans in such areas became homeowners last year through the Guaranteed Rural Housing and Direct Rural Housing Loan Programs. The organization invested $129,306,651 in single-family housing and $7,086,430 in multi-family housing.

Although that makes a difference, for many towns, it’s not enough.

Adding quality, affordable housing has become such a priority in Ravenna that it was a focus in the ongoing mayoral race there.

The problem, Mayor Peg Dethlefs said, is not unlike what other towns are dealing with.

“There’s not adequate housing,” Dethlefs said. “People are looking for three bedrooms or bigger, and there’s not a lot of rentals.”

Though job opportunities in the town are not exactly plentiful, people from both Kearney and Grand Island continue to want to move there for the feel of the small community, she said.

Ravenna is looking to get land for development, Dethlefs said, and a few private citizens are seeking to develop lots. Even so, she said, there’s not yet an obvious solution - and without one, the town misses key chances to grow.

“You just want to have opportunity for people if they come look at your town,” she said. “Otherwise they might go on to the next town.”

That’s something Central City has actively sought to avoid, said Chris Anderson, the city administrator there.

In 2005, the city had a glut of lots that had been sitting for years. Rather than letting them sit longer, Anderson said, Central City began to give them away for free to people who promised to build a house on the land within a year.

The program was a huge success.

In the almost 10 years since they started, they have given away 25 lots, leaving only two, Anderson said.

While he said the city wishes it didn’t have to be so heavily involved in the housing market, it’s working. The city is growing, and recently, a new 47-lot subdivision, where lots cost anywhere from $20,000 to $35,000, opened.

“We couldn’t get there in one step,” Anderson said. “It took a lot of little steps to get there.”

They’ve found a way to address one part of the damaging cycle of housing in small towns, he said.

Without housing, as Dethlefs said, people don’t stay, and without people, builders don’t want to take the risk of building something that sits empty. By stepping in, Anderson said, Central City broke the cycle.

“You’ve got to have a population base to keep the community going,” he said. “Or else it’s a steep and slippery slide to decline.”

But Bill Trumblee, who has built on two of Central City’s free lots, said attracting builders isn’t the only problem.

Trumblee is a pastor and he owns his own construction company, Trumblee Construction. He and his wife, Tana, moved to Central City in 2010.

Since then, he and a partner have built a rent-to-own home on a free lot, and he and Tana are working on finishing their own home on another.

That program, Trumblee said, adds incentive.

“It was definitely a plus for us,” he said. “It was an expense you didn’t have to do.”

But even so, he said, small towns where a three-bedroom apartment might run from $650 to $700 a month are competing with bigger cities, where builders can get $900, $1,000 or more for the same thing.

And even if a builder does decide to work in a more rural area, it’s risky.

Profit margins are tight, and building supplies are expensive, he said. If you build a new house in an area with older, cheaper homes, there’s always the chance that it could sit on the market.

A problem that doesn’t go away

Though Central City has found success with the program, Anderson said, free lots are drying up, and they will now have to see if the growth holds over into the new subdivision. Either way, he said, housing will remain tight.

Although there is no clear solution, Trumblee suggested furthering incentives for builders, in Central City and elsewhere. Better loan programs or grants could help take away some of the risk, he said.

Ritz echoed that. If builders would create rental properties in places such as Doniphan, she said, she’s sure it would fill up quickly and pay itself off in just a few years.

Until then, Ritz said, she will keep looking - and people like her and her family will remain an untapped, underserved market.

“I will get in Doniphan, some way, somehow,” she said.


Information from: The Grand Island Independent, https://www.theindependent.com

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