If rural economic development had an ingredients list, workforce housing might be somewhere near the top.

“Housing enables communities to accommodate the workforce and support business development,” said Department of Economic Development (DED) Director Dave Rippe. “Communities that invest in their workforce housing stock can position themselves to grow and thrive.”

Yet rural communities face unique challenges when it comes to building and rehabilitating homes. From high construction costs to developer scarcity and everything in between, creating the “places where jobs sleep” can be a monumental task.

The State of Nebraska, through DED, administers an array of financial and technical assistance resources that have helped dozens of communities throughout the state build or rejuvenate thousands of quality, affordable homes. The Nebraska Affordable Housing Trust Fund (NAHTF), HOME Investment Partnerships Fund, Community Development Block Grant and National Housing Trust Fund are four such programs.

But in 2017, Governor Ricketts and State Senators decided that it was time for a shot in the arm.

Introduced by Senator Matt Williams and signed into law by Gov. Ricketts, the Rural Workforce Housing Investment Act (LB 518) saw upwards of $7 million channeled from the NAHTF into a new fund devoted solely to rural workforce housing development. The “Rural Workforce Housing Fund (RWHF),” administered by DED, would provide a financial boost to help local stakeholders tackle their housing-related challenges head-on.

DED awarded RWHF dollars last spring to nonprofit development organizations in counties of less than 100,000, following a competitive application process. Recipients supplemented these funds with a 1:1 minimum required match. Today, the resulting Regional Workforce Housing Investment Funds are already translating into impacts across rural Nebraska.

As of December 31, 2018 — less than six months following the release of RWHF dollars — nearly 600 workforce housing projects were already in the planning or construction phases across 12 Nebraska communities. Today, total project costs are valued at over $71 million. Gov. Ricketts traveled to Wakefield last January to preside over a ribbon-cutting for one of the first homes to be built using RWHF dollars; today, the ribbon-cuttings are cropping up like goldenrod — and the investments and projects will continue as development loans revolve. By the end of this first round of investments, Rippe says the state could see over 700 housing units built and/or rehabilitated.

“The economic development community and local stakeholders have rallied around this opportunity, and the outcomes so far have been tremendous,” he said. “But there’s a lot more to be excited about. We’ll be discussing the positive impacts of LB 518 for a long time to come.”