Places to call home (The Belleville Telescope)

Places to call home

Cities urged to help themselves to improve houses, attract new residents to communities

By Deb Hadachek
Telescope editor

Republic County Economic Development director Luke Mahin addresses a question to a packed room at a meeting about improving housing across the county. He urged city leaders to determine SWOT: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats that face their communities as the first step in solving problems. Luke Mahin addresses a question to a packed room at a meeting about improving housing across the county. He urged city leaders to determine SWOT: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats that face their communities as the first step in solving problems.
Republic County Economic Development director Luke Mahin addresses a question to a packed room at a meeting about improving housing across the county. He urged city leaders to determine SWOT: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats that face their communities as the first step in solving problems. Luke Mahin addresses a question to a packed room at a meeting about improving housing across the county.

The first step in housing development for Republic County: notice your own neighborhood. The official name of the process is a Housing Assessment Tool.

But Luke Mahin, Republic County Economic Development director, said that is nothing more than a few members of a community driving up and down the streets of their town, and really looking at the condition of houses they’ve driven by for decades. The process doesn’t take long. But Mahin said it is imperative that citizens in each community do the work themselves: not expect outsiders to come and save them.

“The cities must take ownership in this process themselves,” Mahin said. “We can help them analyze the data. But if you don’t know what you have, we don’t know how to help you solve your problems.”

Carol Torkelson, North Central Regional Planning,Beloit, helps communities secure grants for housing development. But the state is becoming selective about where those grants go. “(The state) found a lot of money was going into towns that weren’t helping themselves,” she says. Kansas Department of Commerce wants the money to go to communities willing to support themselves and that are invested in themselves. (The cities) also put money into parks, streets, schools. Viable communities that have businesses and are enforcing their ordinances.”

High interest
Mahin, Torkelson and Lyle Peterson with the Kansas Department of Commerce spoke to approximately 50 people across the county January 29 at a meeting about housing. Peterson said he was impressed with the turnout. “Many times we go for these meetings and there are six people there,” he commented.

Mahin pointed out statistics about housing in Republic County:
•Nearly 50 percent of the houses in the county were built before 1939.
•Between 2007 and 2012, about 40 houses a year sold in Republic County. In 2013, there were 70 home sales.
•The average price of the homes that sold in 2013 was $61,000. In previous years, the average sale price was $40,000. Eleven homes sold for six figures.
•20 projects qualified for the Neighborhood Revitalization program that gives property owners tax rebates over a five year period on construction projects that total more than $30,000 in appraised valuation. Those projects added $2 million in incremental value to the county in 2013.
•Of 2,877 housing units in the county, 79 percent are occupied and 21 percent are vacant.
•42 percent of people pay less than 15 percent of their gross income for housing. In other parts of the nation, people spend one quarter to one third of their income for housing.
•Neal Lewis, Belleville city manager, said since the city has started a program that helps people tear down decrepit properties, some 80 houses have been removed. Programs available Torkelson and Peterson said there are programs available to help cities renovate housing, provide funding to build infrastructure for new housing developments, as well as assistance to help qualifi ed buyers afford down payments on a house. “There are a lot of different ways communities have gotten creative about solving their housing problems,” Peterson said.

“The most successful brought private money and private individuals together to start building houses. “We want to help encourage private investment to come into communities,” he said. Peterson said programs have been successful in rural communities in Western Kansas. It is important for cities to complete the Housing Assessments to show their needs, he said. Affects economic growth Peterson said lack of housing can affect how communities attract new businesses and grow. “Investment in housing in rural areas always lags,” he said. “It’s really hindering growth for a lot of counties.” Peterson said he talks to companies that need to expand employment, but say “there’s no place for people to live here. “Companies can grow all they want, but you want their employees living here, you want their kids in your school districts, you want new homes in your communities,” he said. “That helps with tax base and increased tax revenue. “It’s all about broadening tax base–not increasing taxes–and sharing the load so no one has to pay more taxes. The more new people you bring in, the more revenue you add into community.
“A lot of people look for someone else to come up with answer. No one else going to solve problem except local folks. The community that comes up with solution and really goes to town and takes care of the needs and start building houses…you’re ones that are going to grow.”

Issue challenge
Doug Wilkinson of Reinke Manufacturing said the company has added numerous employees since the new production facility opened this summer. Many are still commuting, he said, but many want to make their homes in Republic County. Employees have found housing in communities outlying to Belleville, but more houses are needed, he
said. Most employees are young, he added. The oldest child of a new employee is a third grader, he said. Many are preschool age.

But Mahin said the housing problem does not just affect Reinkes. Job growth in the county occurs when small businesses employ or retain one more person, or even a half time job, he noted.

Commissioner Frank Rytych, Cuba, issued a challenge at the end of the
meeting. “I challenge everyone in everyone community in the county to get one more house in their city by the end of the year that is liveable and rentable,” he said. “That would be seven more houses by the end of the year that someone can move into, “I think we can do it.”

For more information on the Housing Needs Assessment contact Mahin at 785-374-3047 or info@republiccountykansas.com.