Small-town prosperity? It takes jobs — and housing

New subdivision in Beattyville
New subdivision in Beattyville

As The Wall Street Journal recently reported, Austin Steinbach, a man determined to have a better life, was offered a $500 signing bonus, benefits and a higher wage if he could move to work in Columbus, Neb.

This was an opportunity of a lifetime, and Steinbach was willing to load a moving truck. However, after searching for an affordable new place to live, he found there was no place he could call home. The houses he found were either out of his price range or dilapidated. After looking for a week, he had to turn down the offer and continue working in Iowa for $2 less an hour and no benefits.

Steinbach’s story is one that unfortunately has become common among people seeking opportunities in rural communities. The lack of quality housing creates a barrier between a community and its ability to attract people to move there and to experience economic growth.

Without homes for new workers, the workforce is unable to grow, and without a growing workforce to drive a growing economy, economic progress is lost.

The Journal reported on towns in the Midwest, but we at Fahe are no strangers to this trend through our work in Appalachia. We believe that by allocating the proper resources and by bringing community leaders together, communities can build both their economies and their overall quality of life.

For example, local leaders in Beattyville, population 1,300, worked with Fahe to form the Beattyville Housing & Development Corp. By applying for the Community Development Block Grant, these local leaders were able to provide the needed infrastructure for a housing subdivision. This housing and other key infrastructure helped the town increase its tax base by $4.5 million and grow over 150 new jobs.

Beattyville, as well as many other communities in Appalachia, have realized that the foundation of prosperity is bricked, at least in part, by the creation and preservation of housing for a growing workforce.

We hope that more people and towns are able to find ways to pull resources and local leaders together to build their way toward prosperity. For the towns and rural areas in which we work, the housing construction and repair jobs themselves provide an important economic driver, offering a living wage, benefits and opportunity for developing more skills.

We are confident that by building the economy and giving more people a place to call home, more small town communities across the United States can achieve the American Dream of prosperity for all.

Jim King is president of Fahe, a nonprofit lender in Berea that works with other nonprofits to advance prosperity in Appalachia.