110617ho-prestage-construction

Crews use machinery to flatten the soil in preparation for construction of the Prestage hog processing plant in rural Eagle Grove on Nov. 6.

CHRIS ZOELLER, The Globe Gazette

Reprinted from the Des Moines Register Nov. 8.

One of the biggest problems facing Iowa isn’t simply the lack of jobs. It’s the lack of workers.

And to attract workers, Iowa — especially small cities and towns — needs housing.

That’s why everyone should pay attention to what’s happening in Chariton. Hy-Vee, which employs 1,300 people at a distribution center in the Lucas County town, is funding the renovation of at least four homes there.

“We think this will be a big factor in attracting and retaining talented employees,” said Matt Beenblossom, vice president of the distribution center.

Hy-Vee is working with the Chariton Valley Regional Housing Trust Fund, and they plan to use the proceeds from the home sales to refurbish more homes.

It’s a small start, but this idea could be replicated across Iowa. Why don’t more employers — working with banks, community foundations, nonprofits and local governments — find ways to provide more housing?

And why can’t the state provide more incentives to employers to provide more housing?

And if a company receives state and local tax breaks, why isn’t it obligated to contribute to local housing efforts?

Lawmakers should consider such questions in the next session, because Iowa’s housing shortage has become acute.

Ground zero may be north-central Iowa, where the Prestage pork plant is being built near Eagle Grove. Several surrounding towns in Wright, Webster, Humboldt and Hamilton counties already struggle with having adequate housing. The plant could attract 1,000 or more workers to the area.

Fortunately, local officials started an effort before the Prestage plant was announced to jump-start home construction. Wright County provided a $17,000 loan to a Clarion economic development group to look at how to add more apartments, houses and duplexes that are affordable to workers. Eagle Grove has been rehabbing dilapidated homes and tearing down those that can’t be saved. It also offers a 20 percent rebate of new home construction costs, up to $40,000.

Housing concerns have come up frequently in the Register’s Changing Iowa forums, in which we’ve gathered Iowans to discuss the sweeping changes facing the state. Our partner in the discussions, the Iowa Rural Development Council, has identified housing as a critical issue. In June, its members took a bus tour of State Center, Marshalltown, Grinnell and Newton to see how the communities were adding upper-story downtown apartments and single-family developments to address shortages.

In our Spencer forum, we heard Kiley Miller, CEO of the Iowa Great Lakes Corridor Development Corp., talk about how he spends about 25 percent of his time helping communities find ways to add housing, to attract new businesses.

In Fort Dodge, we heard Dennis Plautz, CEO of the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance, discuss how Webster County has attracted more than $1 billion in private investment and 1,800 new jobs in the last four years, but it faces challenges attracting and keeping workers. Plautz urged lawmakers to preserve Workforce Housing Tax Credits, which are awarded to housing developers by the Iowa Economic Development Authority. Members of the audience cited the need for new homes and different types of housing, such as downtown lofts.

In Marshalltown, we heard Wendy Soltero, business manager with the local YMCA/YWCA, say that Latinos helped bolster the housing market in Marshalltown post-recession. They provided the influx to buy the starter homes, so those owners could sell and move up to higher-priced homes. In so many Iowa towns, there’s no one to buy the starter homes.

Our next event is Thursday, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Smokey Row Coffee in Oskaloosa, where we will discuss the question: How do we create great communities for all generations? The topic of housing will come up — a necessity whether to attract young workers or to care for Iowa’s rapidly aging population. Please join us if you want to be part of the solution.

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