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A Half-Century of Rural Housing

Homeownership is more common in rural areas, but the rental market can be tight, especially for lower-income families. A new report from the Housing Assistance Council analyzes the central role of housing in community resilience.

a generated image of Meadows Apartments in Darlington, Wisc
The Meadows Apartments in Darlington, Wisc., serves farm workers and their families with affordable housing. USDA funds were part of the financial package that made the new development possible. (Graphic courtesy of Meadows Apartments)
There’s a reason to celebrate in Darlington, Wisconsin, a town of just under 2,500 that lies about a dozen miles from the Illinois border. The Meadows Apartments, a complex of 32 new affordable apartments, is open for business. Only farm workers and their families are eligible to rent the apartments, which typically go for between $200-900 a month, depending on renter income. There is also a community room onsite and outreach programs available.

The complex, which is privately owned but built partially with funds provided by the USDA, addresses a major need facing many rural communities—safe, affordable rental housing for low-income residents.

Affordable housing, particularly for renters of color, is a major issue in the United States and is one of issues highlighted in the recently released “Taking Stock” report, issued by the Housing Assistance Council, better known as HAC. Founded in 1971, HAC works with hundreds of organizations across the country, offering grants, training and technical assistance, and policy guidance on housing and poverty in rural America.

The first report was released in the early 1980s. The latest, released in October 2023, uses data gathered over the last decade to paint a picture of the lives of the 60 million folks who call rural America home. The report also includes historical data covering the last half century and beyond that shows how things have changed over the years — for better, and for worse.

HAC’s Director of Research and Information Lance George explained in an email that the information is meant to be accessible to anyone interested in these issues, “whether you’re a U.S. Senator making policy at the highest levels or a group of concerned citizens in a church basement.”
a bar graph representing homeownership by selected household characteristics in 2021
The rate of home ownership is higher in rural areas than it is in the nation overall. But the graph shows significant differences among various rural demographic groups.
(Housing Assistance Council “Taking Stock”)
The report examines “trends and issues important to rural people, places, and housing.” As is the case for the country as a whole, the results are mixed and depend on where one lives.

Housing affordability is a growing problem everywhere. But the report lays bare some rather sobering statistics for small towns and rural areas in particular.

  • One quarter of all rural households spend more than 30 percent of their monthly income on housing. More than 40 percent of those are renters.
  • Of those rural renters who are considered “cost burdened” by housing expenses, nearly 50 percent spend more than half of their monthly income on housing.
  • Rural renters of color are the hardest hit.

There are other issues, too.

  • The current rural housing stock is aging and needs updating, particularly for energy efficiency.
  • Housing costs have increased dramatically over the last few decades, and the Covid-19 pandemic only exacerbated the problem.
  • The number of banks across rural America has decreased by half since 1995.

The banking issue is complicated, George said. “More than half of all FDIC insured banks are actually located in rural areas,” he said. “But . . . most lending activity is concentrated within a few, typically larger banks.”

The concern is that the remaining large lending institutions may not know or be as invested in a particular community and may be located far from would-be rural borrowers.

“Fewer banks just means less access or longer commutes to access these services.”

Home ownership is more prevalent in rural areas than urban ones, but about a quarter of occupied rural homes are rentals. And the rental market can be tight because of a lack of affordable properties. The problem will likely only get worse, particularly for those with lower incomes, because of the loss of certain resources that created affordable rentals.

While rents in rural areas are typically lower than in urban and suburban areas, more than half of rural renters live below the poverty line, making market rate rents—even in rural areas—beyond their reach.
a bar graph representing rural rental housing rates by selected characteristics, 2021
More than half of rural residents under age 35 rent, while only about 17 percent of those 65 or older do. White, non-Hispanic rural residents are far less likely to rent that people of other races and ethnicities.
(Housing Assistance Council “Taking Stock” report)
But the news is far from all bad. While it’s still predominantly white, rural America has become much more racially and culturally diverse over the last five decades and will continue to diversify. Most rural Americans live in houses that are safe and affordable. As has been the case for many decades, most own their own homes. There’s been a steep drop in the number of households that don’t have plumbing—in 1970, 14 percent did not have plumbing. By 2021, that number was less than 1 percent.

But there’s a long way to go, George said.

“There are still far too many substandard homes in a nation of such wealth and resources,” he said.

This article was first published by the Daily Yonder. Read the original article.
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