For a good part of 2021, Chariton Valley Electric Cooperative’s Jonathan Giesken called an RV camper home while he searched for a permanent place for his family near the co-op’s southern Iowa headquarters in Albia.
In fact, his Forest River Arctic Wolf parked in an RV lot was the second of three temporary homes for the peripatetic line apprentice, who relocated from Ravenwood, Missouri, leaving his wife, Brittany, and two young children behind.
That same year, two of Giesken’s colleagues, also line apprentices, settled in ad-hoc housing, including taking turns renting a home owned by the interim general manager’s grandfather. Like Giesken, they too were living apart from their families, seeing them only on weekends.
“It’s hard to compete with local people. You either have to know someone or get lucky,” Amoss says. “It’s real tough for a stranger to come in and just go buy or build a house. The ‘For Sale’ signs in yards aren’t around for long.”
Such co-op nomads are extreme examples of the crisis in so-called “missing middle” housing, an industry term to describe what Amoss and other frustrated house hunters are looking for in smalltown America: a single-family home for young professionals that’s not a fancy custom-built mansion, low-end rental or manufactured home.
This widening housing gap is having a serious impact on co-ops’ ability to hire critical employees at a time of escalating retirements, pressure from members for more services and mounting stresses on the electric grid.
At Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative, a system operator from out of state turned down a job offer because of housing costs. He stayed in Arizona. “The lack of housing has definitely impacted our hiring. We’ve lost candidates,” says Tucker Billman, manager of government affairs at OTEC, based in Baker City. “The other challenge we’re finding is that we will have great people for jobs, and they’re very excited and interested, and their spouses are finding great jobs. But they can’t find a house. So now it’s not just OTEC missing out, but it’s whoever the spouse was going to work for. So now two local businesses have lost that workforce.”
But co-ops are using their deep connections to their communities and relationships with agencies, people and resources to tackle the problem and remove barriers to homeownership. Slowly but surely, that co-op “horsepower,” as Billman calls it, is making a difference.
The nation’s severe housing shortage means people often can’t find, let alone afford, homes in their communities or close to where they work. The problem has been simmering for decades, even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
A 2021 Freddie Mac study found that the nation was short 2.5 million single-family homes due to strong demand, shortages of construction workers and developers, lack of available acreage, land use restrictions and out-of-date zoning regulations. Two years later, that gap had widened by 52% to 3.8 million homes.
“One of the most important reasons for this shortfall has been the severe underbuilding of entry-level homes, where most of the demand exists, especially now given the large cohort of Millennials entering the housing market,” the report states.
When the pandemic began in early 2020, it drove millions of Americans to flee big cities, accelerating a migration toward small, more rural places that began about 10 years earlier, according to a June 2021 Freddie Mac analysis.
That trend is still shaking out, says rural economic development expert and 3D housing developer Zachary Mannheimer, who has worked extensively with electric co-ops on grassroots growth strategies. Based on data from moving companies and statistics from the U.S. Census and U.S. Postal Service, “our estimation is that 15 million Americans are on the move right now, and they’re all going to determine where they’re going to live, work and play by the end of 2024,” Mannheimer says. “So if co-ops want to get a small slice of that population coming their way, they have to invest in housing, broadband and community placemaking to make their communities unique and attractive.”
Oregon Trail EC is an authority on economic development and housing in its four-county service area. Last year, it sponsored its first “Power Eastern Oregon,” a one-day meeting that focused “on all things economic development,” including housing, Billman says.
The co-op is also playing a supporting role in six residential developments on co-op lines. One of those projects, scheduled for completion this summer, is a “3D village” of 20 or more 3D-printed homes in the town of John Day. The technology is attracting attention among housing advocates because it’s fast, costs less than traditional construction and is less reliant on skilled labor and scarce building materials.
Instead, it uses a computer blueprint fed to a large robotic arm extruder on rails that applies layers of concrete to create walls.
“These could range in size from 800 to 1,300 square feet and will be one- and two-bedroom homes,” Billmansays. “It’s housing for a young couple or someone just out of college.”
OTEC will partner with Oregon-based developer Layer Line 3D on a framework of best practices in energy efficiency technologies, battery storage and EV chargers for future 3D-printed houses.
“We’re excited to be a part of this project and will likely find ways to put the developers ‘on display,’ if you will, to highlight the potential they offer the rest of the region,” Billman says.
'We all have the same issues'
The “missing middle” housing crisis is also threatening local economies by making it more difficult for employers to hire workers. Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative Key Accounts Coordinator Nick Bowers says business owners tell him: “I would hire a manager tomorrow, but I can’t. They don’t want to live in a $50,000 home, and they can’t afford a $600,000 home.”
Those discussions set off alarm bells for Bowers.
Located an hour outside of Tulsa and 45 minutes from a large industrial park, the Vinita-based co-op has worked hard to attract star brands like Tesla and others.
Last June, Bowers organized a regional group of about 50 local stakeholders to study the problem and come up with solutions. Participants were a “Who’s Who” of community leaders: bank presidents, community activists, elected officials, homebuilders, developers, school superintendents, grant writers and business owners.
“We have a large service territory, and we talk to a lot of people,” says Bowers, who’s also mayor of nearby Fairfield. “I thought, ‘What if we put all of these people in a room together and let them talk about this?’”
After realizing, “We all have the same issues,” the group identified hurdles, including things like red tape during permitting, land-use and loan processes and zoning restrictions. One pain point was that builders and developers had to wait for the city council to sign off on permits before getting bank loans.
“It’s one of those easy things that nobody thought about,” Bowers says. “Builders and developers were paying two loan payments before they were even getting started, because they had to wait on the city council. The hurdle is flipped now, and so you now get your plans approved before the bank piece.”
Chariton Valley EC’s homebase of Albia, Iowa, is short about 400 rental properties, according to a February report by consultant Hometown Housing, which the co-op hired to analyze development gaps and propose solutions. Some 600 people commute from outside Albia to work at the local hospital or one of several manufacturers. Employers said they could expand their businesses if housing weren’t such a problem.
“I’ve lived outside Albia 33 years, and I don’t mind my 20-minute drive to the office,” says Tod Faris, the co-op’s economic development and community relations manager. “But there are a lot of other people who would rather live exactly where they’re working. Or they commute for a while and quit when they decide, ‘Man, I could make a little less per hour working somewhere near my home with a shorter commute.’”
Faris says the co-op and its allies have begun looking at specific areas in Albia that are conducive to building multifamily housing units and single-family homes.
“We are considering some locations, talking with property owners and investigating infrastructure needs,” Faris says. “We are looking forward to creating more housing options for our workforce so our community can be stronger and better.”
Employers 'get it'
Successes like zoning changes and new housing developments can take years to realize, so advocates say than staying focused and maintaining momentum are key.
Involving local employers—key accounts—in housing strategies can bring fresh perspectives and creative solutions, and their economic impact often gives their advocacy more weight with elected officials.
“If employers are pushing for change, and they’re saying we can’t grow here because there’s not enough housing, and if we can’t continue to grow here, we will grow somewhere else, that will get local leaders’ attention,” Faris says.
These days, when it comes to solving the rural housing shortage, relationship-building across sectors is almost as important as drywall and low mortgage rates, says OTEC’s Billman. And co-ops are vital partners in that process.
“Co-ops are the backbones of their communities,” he says. “We learn about the good ideas that are happening throughout our service territory, and we can help connect people in other places in our service territory to those good ideas.”