Photo: new apartments under construction in North Platte, made possible by the Rural Workforce Housing Fund and local stakeholders.
To celebrate Fair Housing Month, we’re recognizing some of the people, places and programs that help promote affordable, available housing options throughout the state of Nebraska. This week’s spotlight? The Rural Workforce Housing Fund (RWHF) — a program that’s helping communities across the state increase their supply of quality homes to support a growing workforce.
“If you want to create jobs and grow the workforce, you have to be able to provide places to live,” said Gary Person, Executive Director of the North Platte Chamber and Development Corporation. North Platte was one of over a dozen communities announced this month as recipients under the latest round of RWHF funding.
Signed into law by Governor Pete Ricketts in 2017 as part of the Rural Workforce Housing Investment Act (LB 518), the RWHF provided $7 million to help communities in counties of less than 100,000 create additional housing units to spur economic growth. Today, that initial $7 million has already translated into around $80 million in project costs, representing more than 600 units built, rehabilitated or in the planning phases in almost two dozen communities.
Given the early success of the program, the State Legislature and Gov. Ricketts allocated an additional $10 million for award earlier this year.
North Platte (as North Platte Chamber and Development Corp.) was one of the 14 RWHF recipients announced during Round 1, and was notified this month of its second award, for $500,000.
“Both of these awards have been the result of a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication to the growth of our community paying off,” Person said.
With its first RWHF award, North Platte built upon a blueprint for success it had established in the 2010’s by way of an innovative “Shot in the Arm” housing program. This involved incentivizing developers to build in a community the size of North Platte, rather than sticking to larger metropolises like Lincoln or Omaha.
“From a developer’s perspective, building homes in a rural community like North Platte can come with a certain financial risk,” Person explained. “You have no guarantee the homes you build will sell. But in North Platte, we were confident that our challenge wasn’t a lack of demand. Quite the opposite, in fact, we knew we needed more supply.”
By offering to reimburse developers for a portion of their construction costs — at first using local funds, and later with help from the RWHF — North Platte was able to get the ball rolling and add almost 50 single-family units or town homes to its housing inventory by 2018. Within 24 months, all had sold.
“And all of a sudden, we had ignited our housing market and proven that we were a community that was primed for growth,” Person said.
By the time LB 518 rolled around, the need for and opportunity present in building homes in North Platte were readily apparent; so much so that local employers Union Pacific and Great Plains Health pledged $100,000 each to the city’s $350,000 matching contribution for the first round of RWHF grants. Other Chamber business partners provided another $250,000.
“That kind of involvement from the private sector just shows how essential this kind of program is,” Person said.
When the Department of Economic Development announced the first round of RWHF recipients in early 2018, North Platte was notified of its successful application to the highly-competitive program, receiving an award of $383,000. The city would use this funding to broaden the scope of the Shot in the Arm program that had already created so much momentum. True to form, it has leveraged these funds into 250 new housing units, including 28 single-family “for sale homes” and three market rate apartment buildings containing 222 total apartments — the city’s first new apartment buildings in four decades — in only three years.
“This is the kind of return on investment that’s possible when you have a great partnership program, a model that works, and buy-in from the community, the city, the state and the private sector,” Person said. “It’s also the product of a community that is bursting at the seams with potential for growth.”
Today, with the recent announcement of its second RWHF award, this time for $500,000, North Platte is ready to keep that momentum building — proving that in this community, it’s not a question of will they come if we build it?, but a statement that if we build it, they will come.
“You can only grow so far without housing,” Person said. “This is an investment in our future, and we’re incredibly fortunate to have a program available to help us pursue our vision.”