This month's question: What are some things co-ops can do to increase housing in their territories?
Answer: Co-ops are in a unique position to serve as community connectors when it comes to solving issues such as housing. We are unlike other entities in many ways, including our close ties to major industries through our key account programs, reach through the cooperative network, talented workforce and our commitment to community. With so many powerful things in our tool kit, the best thing we can do is put those to work. First, have someone assigned this type of involvement whether a full position or someone in leadership. Make sure it’s someone’s job. Next, get to the table and identify community priorities and strategies. Third, find that alignment so you can dip into your toolbox, leverage economies of scale and make connections. Here at OTEC, we’ve had great success idea-sharing across our territory to help solve housing. The same ideas that worked in one community may work in another. We’ve seen success in everything from 3D house printing, short-term workforce housing for medical professionals or workforce development programs to fill technical skill gaps for contractors. We’ve tapped into our cooperative network resources in many ways, including Touchstone Energy’s Co-op Community Contest and bringing a CFC economist to our economic development summit. All had great impact and inched us toward solving the housing issues.
Answer: In economic development, the business of attracting business has gotten significantly more complex. Gone are the days of simple “Build it, and they will come” economics, when a spec building and a dream was a quick path to new job opportunities. Projects are bigger and more complex; unemployment and workforce participation rates have been extraordinarily low for over a decade, meaning available skilled workers are scarce. For a spell, communities were valued based on their “quality of life,” a nebulous measure of safety, school quality and “things to do,” but even in those areas, new housing starts haven’t always keep pace. Now one of the most attractive selling points to a new company is how many housing developments are being planned or are actively under construction. To help entice new housing, Wabash Valley Power Alliance provides its members with residential and commercial/industrial energy efficiency incentives via our Power Moves® program, and to date, we’ve enabled more than 60 single- and multi-family dwellings to locate on cooperative lines. Our economic development team regularly offers grants to economic development organizations to procure housing studies to promote the need for new units. Our engineers work closely with our members to provide electric infrastructure necessary to facilitate growth. As a result of these efforts, one thing is clear: To attract new jobs, the ability to bring in new housing is more important than ever.
Answer: Corn Belt Power Cooperative has partnered with our member cooperatives on several housing projects over the last 10+ years. Corn Belt and our member cooperatives have over $23 million combined in Revolving Loan Funds, which can be used to assist with housing and have been helpful in several projects across our system. These have included infrastructure in new developments, purchasing real estate and constructing new housing. We’re helping Homes for Iowa: affordable homes built by Iowa Prison Industries to address housing shortages and train offenders in skilled trades. Homes are only $90,000. Each lot is donated. And the community handles site prep, basement, garage, etc. Corn Belt Power, Iowa Lakes Electric Cooperative and Midland Power are assisting with four homes from our Revolving Loan Funds. To learn more, visit homesforia.com. Also, ILEC and Corn Belt Power Cooperative each loaned $500,000 to IGL Construction to purchase 31 acres with plans to construct 55 affordable, energy-efficient homes. The location was a mobile home park that needed to be cleaned up. Homes are around 1,000 square feet with 2 or 3 bedrooms, 1 or 2 baths and a single-car garage. More information here: iglconstruction.com/westfield. We are here to partner with our communities. On several of these projects, we aren’t even the power provider. We take our commitment to community seriously, and we want to see our rural areas sustain and grow.
Answer: For 25 years, commitment to community has driven Touchstone Energy’s mission to help co-ops strengthen relationships with their member-owners. Co-ops have been at the forefront of community engagement and can be the spark for development and small-town revitalization. A sustained migration toward rural areas is underway, supercharged by urban flight caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a positive development for co-ops, but it’s exposing a major challenge: a shortage of available and affordable housing in many rural areas that threatens to curtail the migration trend, make it harder for co-ops to hire workers and leave dozens of viable towns behind. As expected, co-ops are stepping in to lend a hand. I’ve seen first-hand how co-ops have brought their hard work and good ideas to the table. They’ve purchase unused buildings and converted them to apartments. They’ve worked with local governments to change zoning laws. They’ve convened stakeholders to come up with local solutions to this common problem. They’ve even signed deals with 3D-printed housing developers to quickly build affordable homes. This is a long-term issue that will require a sustained, creative response. Can you think of any better entity than an electric cooperative to take it on?