Local Leaders Grapple With Housing Shortage

By Deb Hadachek Telescope News

“We really need houses here. It’s a problem countywide we need to figure out.”

That statement by Belleville mayor Adam Robertson to Republic County Commissioners is a drum beat that has sounded faster and faster in recent years.

It’s a hot market,” says realtor David Blecha of Blecha Realty of the housing situation in Republic County. This week, Blecha had only a handful of homes listed for sale that are not under contract or sold.

“It’s been an interesting turn of events in the last eight to 10 months. (Homes for sale) don’t last very long.”

Blecha and realtor Julie Hansen of NCK Realty in Belleville say there is no one single thing they can pinpoint that is driving the housing market. It might be low interest rates. Some buyers are moving to the local area for jobs or because they learned they can easily work remotely. Some families are upgrading to larger homes; some couples are downsizing to smaller living spaces

“I get two to three calls every day from people looking for rentals,” Hansen says. “A lot of people are looking to buy homes under $100,000, but I’ve had houses priced over $100,000 gone in a couple of days.”

Robertson and Republic County Economic Development director Luke Mahin said local officials and business people have been investigating options for new construction and housing developments for several years.

Last summer RCED and North Central Regional Planning sponsored a home ownership program that helped 11 homebuyers with a $10,000 no-interest loan for down payments and $2,000 grants for closing costs.

Of that number, half were first-time homebuyers, and a third had accepted a job in Republic County in the last two years. Eighty percent were under the age of 50. Three of the participants moved to Republic County from outside North Central Kansas.

This year RCED tried another avenue to improve or free up living spaces with three programs funded by a grant from the Dane Hansen Foundation. Ten people received grants of up to $500 to purchase paint and materials from local businesses, and another six are on a waiting list. One person has applied for an “Empty Nester” grant which provides up to $5,000 to seniors to cover costs incurred with moving or selling property. A third program offers $2,500 to property owners who want to demolish a residential property on a lot they would use for development, construction, or to donate to a land bank.

While some might view the recent escalation in the cost of building materials a roadblock to new construction, Mahin and Robertson say local people also have unrealistic expectations of the cost of new construction.

“How do we tell people who think $160,000 is a lot of money for a new house, that’s what it costs to build today?” Robertson said.

“When less than 10 percent of the homes in the county have been built since 1970s, no one really knows what it costs to build today,” Mahin adds.

A recent survey by RCED sets the average cost of renovations to existing homes at $30,000.

But Hansen at NCK Realty speculates that the shortage of carpenters and other trade people in the region contributes to the lack of new construction.

“We need trade people here,” she says. “People say there are no opportunities in rural areas, but that’s not the case here.

“The sky’s the limit. The door is wide open here.”

Robertson spends his evenings driving the streets of Belleville, envisioning ways new living spaces could sprout on vacant lots.

Republic County also offers a Neighborhood Revitalization Plan program that offers a five-year tax rebate on a sliding scale for new construction of appraised value of more than $25,000. Application must be made to the program before construction starts.

Net Zero Development

Robertson said city leaders have met with Kansas State University architects who propose developments of “net zero” homes. Built with prefabricated walls and energy-friendly amenities like solar panels, construction costs are higher than traditional homes, but owners may save the difference in lower utility costs, he said.

That option could also create jobs locally for people interested in a plant to manufacture the components of net-zero homes for other communities, he said.

Robertson said Republic County does not need more low-income housing options.

“We need options for people who make more money,” he said. “We need to find a way to get more government money for moderate-income housing.

“We’ve got to find a way where it’s more economical for people to build or buy,” he said.

Mahin points to the popularity of last year’s homebuyer program to help with down payment and closing costs, which was a pilot funded by the Dane Hansen Foundation.

State, national issue

Republic County is not alone in its quest to upgrade housing.

In 2021, KHRC and the Office of Rural Prosperity launched the state’s first comprehensive housing needs assessment in nearly 30 years, aiming to address a decades-long shortage of data on existing housing resources and current and projected needs. A lack of quality, affordable housing is widely recognized as one of the state’s biggest barriers to growth and development, particularly in rural and underserved communities.

Citizens are encouraged to take part in a survey: https://www. surveymonkey.com/r/KansasHousing.

Home sales slowed nationally in the early months of the pandemic. But by June 2020, sales of existing homes shot back up nearly 21%, according to the National Association of Realtors.

There were nearly half as many homes for sale nationally at the end of February 2021 compared with a year earlier, according to a new calculation by realtor.com.