Rural county builds on Kan. housing program

Stafford County agency building on Kansas housing program to revitalize rural area

Associated Press

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Stafford County is one of several rural Kansas communities hoping to use state programs to build new homes and persuade people to move to areas thirsty for growth.

The county in central Kansas is one of the state's designated rural opportunity zones because of double-digit percentage drops in population from 2000 to 2010. The designation makes the county eligible to participate in a program that offers income tax exemptions to new residents and assistance in repaying college tuition.

Combined, the programs reflect a decision by legislators and Republican Gov. Sam Brownback to dedicate money toward reversing trends in population declines and prevent a future loss of congressional representation. Some of the rural counties peaked in population more than 100 years ago and have seen precipitous declines.

The goal is to attract enough new residents to keep counties viable and preserve the rural way of life. Seventy-seven of Kansas' 105 counties are designated rural opportunity zones, with 56 participating in both the tax and student loan programs.

Carolyn Dunn, director of Stafford County Economic Development, said the county has received interest from people looking to move to the county. What is holding them back is the lack of housing to meet their needs. Dunn said having a ready supply of homes would help reverse the declining population, which has averaged about 35 people a year.

"That is something that we have to focus on," Dunn said. "We just haven't had a lot of investment in housing."

Part of the problem is the age of the homes in Stafford County and their condition. Dunn said only 3 percent of all residences were built in the last 20 years. The average home is 84 years old and 80 percent of the housing is considered in less than good condition.

But many families looking to move to the area want modern homes with three bedrooms and two baths, something not heard of in the 1930s, she said.

The economic development group has received two grants to deal with the issue and fund construction of two duplexes, one through a tax credit program.

In the state's urban counties, such as Douglas, Johnson or Sedgwick, new home and apartment construction is commonplace. But urban contractors have some degree of certainty that homes built without buyers lined up will be sold, while that's not the case in rural counties.

"We just haven't had a lot of investment in housing. It doesn't take a lot in a smaller context to make a difference," she said.

Fred Bentley, director of the rental division of the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation, said the moderate-income program was designed to fill a need identified by communities by pay to build housing and infrastructure.

"Economic development is happening, but it's being hindered by the problems communities have with housing," he said.

Bentley said $2.3 million was awarded to communities in 2012 and an additional $2.13 million was awarded in 2013, though not all were in rural areas designated as opportunity zones. The money is used primarily to build housing and improve land to get it ready for construction, such as infrastructure.

"We're pretty happy with this," Bentley said. "It's kind of soon to say exactly how it's going, but we have a lot of construction underway."

The agency needs another year to know if the program is meeting its goal and helping with rural growth. Bentley said the program builds on assistance the state provided in Greensburg following the 2007 tornado and flooding in recent years in other parts of the state.

"It will help, but it's not a total solution," he said.

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