Rural America Faces a Housing Cost Crunch

By: - March 25, 2019 12:00 am

Bertie County, North Carolina, is one of many rural counties that saw a sizeable increase this decade in the number of households spending at least half their income on housing. Gerry Broome/The Associated Press

Read more Stateline coverage on affordable housing.

The problem of housing affordability, long a concern in popular big cities, has moved to rural America.

Nearly one-fourth of the nation’s most rural counties have seen a sizeable increase this decade in the number of households spending at least half their income on housing, a category the federal government calls “severely cost-burdened.”

Those counties, none with towns of more than 10,000 residents, have experienced housing cost increases significant enough to force families to scrimp on other necessities.

Meanwhile, only two big-city counties — Bronx, New York, and Norfolk, Virginia — fell into the same category. Both had 2-point increases, according to a Stateline analysis of American Community Survey estimates from the U.S. Census. Stateline compared the early years of the Great Recession, 2006-2010, with the most recent economic recovery era, 2013-2017.

The share of severely cost-burdened households has fallen since the Great Recession in expensive destinations such as Cape Cod, Massachusetts; Key West, Florida; San Francisco and Seattle. The share also has dipped slightly in Manhattan, New York, as the overall economy has recovered.

Losses of high-paying jobs have hit some rural regions, such as a cluster of coal-dependent counties in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, especially hard. Other places are struggling with affordable housing because new workers in economically revived areas are vying for rental housing, putting pressure on prices in a rental market with a limited supply.

“Sometimes all it takes is just one new [business] facility in one of these communities,” said Corianne Scally, a research associate who studies affordable housing at the Urban Institute.   

“All of a sudden you need more labor on hand to start up that plant, you’re stretching the ability of the rental housing base to accommodate new people and you see prices increase,” Scally said.

That’s the case in Irion County, Texas, population 1,516, where fracking and wind farms have been bringing new workers, said county clerk Shirley Miles. The county’s energy jobs tripled to 187 between 2010 and 2016, the latest federal data available, at average annual wages of more than $63,000.

Unemployment in the county dropped from 5.3 percent to 3.2 percent in that time, and typical monthly rents rose 44 percent to .           

Another new wind farm is under construction now, and it’s already under contract to provide power to Mexico-based baker Grupo Bimbo and other customers. That’s bringing 300 temporary construction workers this year and a dozen more permanent jobs after the wind farm is operational.

“You think of these places like Irion County as ‘The Last Picture Show,’ all dusty and forgotten, and then you see that some of them are success stories. This isn’t all a dark story,” said Keith Wiley, senior research associate at the Housing Assistance Council in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit working to build more housing in rural communities.

Yet Irion County had one of the largest cost-burden increases, according to the Stateline analysis, with 13 percent of households severely cost-burdened in recent years, up from just 4 percent during the Great Recession.

There are similar situations in rural areas of Iowa and Georgia, where new meatpacking plants are stressing the local rental market and driving up prices, Wiley said.

One reason for the slow-moving crisis in rural rental housing is that federal incentives to include affordable units have all but disappeared, and those remaining are quietly expiring, allowing landlords to freely charge more when demand rises, according to a 2018 study by the Housing Assistance Council. More than 2,000 rental properties left the federal program, mostly in the Midwest, between 2006 and 2016, according to the study, as landlords paid off the loans.

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Tim Henderson
Tim Henderson

Tim Henderson covers demographics for Stateline. He has been a reporter at the Miami Herald, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Journal News.