The answer is “Housing.”
Every survey result in the past 30 years taken by Eads, Kiowa County, and throughout rural southeastern Colorado has identified “Housing” as the number one issue that is hampering rural communities from growing and improving their quality of life. When it’s time to bring in a qualified doctor or health professional --- there’s no appropriate house so they don’t come. Or, the school has a chance to hire a great educator and coach with an awesome family --- but there’s no appropriate house so they don’t come. Or, educated alumni with a young family want to move out of the city and come home --- but there’s no appropriate house so they don’t come. We’ve heard those stories time and time again over the years.
And we also know that when any decent house is about to come open it is snagged up privately before anyone knows it was even going to be available.
The problem has always been --- rural Colorado can’t afford to build houses from the ground up. No way, not even close.
If you read the eye-opening article by Kevin Simpson entitled “In Rural Towns like Kit Carson, a Housing and Development Conundrum Born of Rising Costs, Disrepair---and Lots of Asbestos” first published in the Colorado Sun and then published with permission in the May 12, 2021 edition of the Independent, it became quickly apparent how much of an issue housing is for our rural communities.
In that article, Simpson interviewed Amy Johnson from the Kit Carson Rural Development (KCRD) group who has been particularly successful in obtaining daunting and time-consuming HUD and USDA housing loans and grants to improve the housing inventory in Kit Carson. Johnson aptly described the problem rural Colorado has as it comes to economic development and housing, “We recently provided a house for a schoolteacher and her three children. KCRD bought the generous lot for $10,000 and it didn’t cost much to clear away a rundown mobile home. But the new house cost $247,000 to build --- a hefty price tag. It appraised for $120,000. And that’s what we sold it to her for. Because if we didn’t have this house, I don’t think she would still be living in our town. It was the only way for her to access quality, affordable housing.”
According to Jaime Gomez, deputy executive director and chief operating officer of the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, “Rural areas run into problems adding affordable housing largely because the type of funding sources typically available favor bigger projects. They’re really targeted for helping developers build projects that are 30, 40, 50 units and larger, when a community like Kit Carson needs only 10 or fewer units.”
In Eads the lack of housing supply has led to outmigration and stagnation. Appraisals are still not adequate due to the lack of sales comps. Construction costs have been prohibitive on smaller scale projects. There is a scarcity of contractors and labor for new development. Costs have gone through the roof making a small project like building one house unattainable. But maybe the biggest issue stopping any new building in the town is the lack of construction loan capital available.
Worse yet, across the region, including in Kiowa County, there are many opportunities and potential to attract businesses such as with the new wind and solar projects and more agricultural-based projects, as long as there is adequate housing for the work force.
A perfect harmony of out-of-the-box ideas on how to solve this major issue has arrived on the scene in not only Eads, but also the communities of Wiley, Granada, Springfield, Walsh, Las Animas, Lamar, La Junta and Onley Springs. This new idea, referred to as the Southeast Colorado Workforce Housing project, focuses on a collaboration between different agencies who have the ability to work with perspective homeowners to gain new build housing opportunities.
Yes! You read that right. New build housing opportunities can be in our future!
This unique out-of-the-box project will build approximately 60-70 new housing units across a six-county region of southeastern Colorado. A collaborative effort among city and county leadership in Kiowa, Crowley, Baca, Bent, Otero and Prowers counties is required for the project to get off the ground. It’s a project that depends on an ‘economy of scale’ approach. It’s a housing development project like what you’d see in Denver where there are 3-4 different house models to choose from and then the developer goes in and builds 70 houses—all a little different---but all having common designs. They can make that project work because of ‘economy of scale.’ The project has to be large enough to drive down costs recognized in material purchases, shared labor costs, and regional partnerships to drive down land, utility, design, planning and financing costs.
It is projected that Eads will receive 6 new houses within this project, the other towns will receive somewhat the same amount depending on their size and need. Each house will cost $150,000-$200,000 and will have to be presold before the building in the community will begin. The project has a strict timeline, as well, listing the final house to be completed in February of 2023.
The project is organized with a Housing Oversight Committee (HOC) that will consist of representatives from each respective county’s municipalities, governments and economic development groups. Project leadership will come from Southeast Colorado Enterprise Development, Inc. (SECED) and Southern Colorado Economic Development District (SCEDD).
SECED will allow a one agency oversight over the developer selection, contract negotiations, construction oversight, and securing surety to protect local government interests. SCEDD will provide planning and consulting services, negotiate preferred community investment funding for home loans from banks, manage presales, and financial consultation to assist prospective homebuyers with accessing home loans.
But the key to the success of this project is the fact that these local towns and counties have recently received American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds from the federal government. In Eads, the Town will receive $129,197 of ARPA funding and the project is asking for 8.5% of those funds or $10,981.75. Kiowa County’s contribution is also 8.5% of their ARPA funding that equates to $39,814.96. No one municipality or county will put more than 8.5% of their ARPA funds into the project.
The availability of ARPA funds provides a unique opportunity to fund an attainable housing project without directly impacting the town or county’s budgets. These funds are eligible to assist our communities with the creation of workforce housing.
Workforce housing is not low-income housing. This unique project, created out of the availability of low-risk money in the form of the ARPA funds, is exactly what these rural communities need in order to solve so many problems associated with the lack of housing opportunities.
Investing money that is already a gift to our towns and counties represents a low-risk investment of just 8.5% of the ARPA funds being given by the federal government. But the returns are substantial. Building new houses improves the lives of the buyers, improves the economy and aesthetic of the community, increases property and sales tax revenue, and serves as a catalyst to build more houses for young families who may move in with school-aged children. This increases the enrollment in the school district, which in turn could increase salaries and attract more quality people to the community. Then, of course, there are ancillary benefits of goods and services that will be purchased by the new homeowners.
Safe, secure, and energy efficient housing is the cornerstone of any regional economy. Until this issue of housing is addressed other economic issues and stagnant job creation will persist. The ARPA funds represent a way to invest in Housing --- the number one issue that has plagued our communities for the past two generations.
More information about the project will soon be made available to the general public. Currently, the HOC team is trying to purchase lots in the community. Anyone with a lot that already has utilities, including sewer, should get in touch with your local economic development director or call the town or county administrative offices. Also, if you are an employer or in the rental business you may be able to benefit from this program.
An inquiry as to whether the Kiowa County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) and Town of Eads will join in this project and invest up to 8.5% of their ARPA was made. As of this writing, the county commissioners are on board with the project. County Administrator Tina Adamson stated, “The county will agree to invest up to 8.5% of their ARPA funds. We will vote on the Resolution and MOU with SCEDD at our next meeting on July 29.”
However, the Town of Eads has tabled the decision until their August meeting at their July 13th meeting. According to the timeline presented to the BOCC and Town board on Tuesday, the decision as to whether to invest in the project is due by July 31. Obviously, the Town will need to have a special meeting prior to the end of the month if they want to invest in this unique housing opportunity.