Inmates Helping to Meet Affordable Housing Demand

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The month of May is Affordable Housing Month. Rural Resurrection continues to look at ways to help communities to provide safe, decent, affordable housing.

Affordable housing is a growing issue of concern in almost every state. This fact is even true in the Midwestern states. Once known for a modest supply of affordable housing. Now Midwestern states are scrambling for ideas to tackle the shortage of affordable housing as construction costs soar.

The Newton Correctional Facility in Newton, Iowa, is helping out in its own way. They are participating in a new program called Homes for Iowa. Administered by Iowa’s Prison Industries, Homes for Iowa is working to help the affordable housing issue in their own way.

Under the program, inmates are paid $1 an hour to help build affordable homes. The low wage paid to inmates lowers the overhead costs of producing housing. The houses constructed are then sold at an affordable price.

There are some who believe that programs like Homes for Iowa exploits inmates due to the low wage. However, the programs are voluntary and there is a waiting list at prisons involved. Inmates want into the program at increasing rates. They get outside of the prison walls and, more importantly, they learn new skills that are in high demand. Skills that they can utilize once they are out of prison and are able to enter the workforce again.

Catching on Elsewhere

South Dakota has been running their own program for a number of years. In contrast from Iowa’s program, South Dakota’s program is run by the South Dakota Housing Authority. However, it has been quite successful. Since 1997, inmates have built over 2,800 homes for South Dakota communities. Yet, demand for the program from housing-thirsty communities keeps increasing.

In Minnesota, the West Central Minnesota Communities Action Agency is running a somewhat similar program for low-to-moderate-income families. North East Community Action Corporation (NECAC) out of Bowling Green, Missouri, is modeling theirs after South Dakota’s. In Nebraska, non-profit Prarie Gold Homes has worked in Beatrice and McCook.

Get In Line and Get Ready

If your state has a similar program, get your community on the waitlist as soon as possible. In Iowa, getting on that waitlist starts with your local Council of Governments. That’s who Homes for Iowa has designated. Not every state has a regional council of governments (COGs), they have rural development organizations (RDOs) or some other regional entity that assists rural communities. Regardless, they are a good place to start, even if your state doesn’t have a program like Homes for Iowa’s.

Start eyeing target infill lots. Homes for Iowa sticks to two main layouts, a wide layout, and a narrow layout. The wide layout resembles the typical ranch style, while the narrow layout fits well in the narrow lots where the bungalow-style houses used to be built. But you should see if the organization that you’re working with has a standard layout and if it can fit on the infill lots you are eyeing.

Affordable Housing is Everyone’s Problem

Homes for Iowa’s goal is to build over 800 homes over the next decade for Iowa communities. But that will be just a drop in the bucket of affordable housing need. In a recent study, Iowa Finance Authority stated that Iowa needs 47,000 new homes constructed in the next decade to accommodate population growth.

The median home price in the United States was $329,000 in 2020. This was an increase of over $106,000 since 2010 ($222,900). This is an increase of over 47% in ten years. While the median house price in rural areas is much lower, rural communities have still struggled with limited supply and rapidly increasing construction costs.

Regardless if you utilize a program like Homes for Iowa, it can’t be your only “iron in the fire”. Affordable housing is an ongoing issue with no end in sight. You must look into any means available to keep the situation from getting worse in your community.