Rural Housing Crisis: How Iowa Communities Are Building for the Future

David Doxtad, PE
September 13, 2018

The number of new housing units across Iowa increased in 2017, making it one of a handful of states where housing growth didn’t stall. However, this overall growth hides a more entrenched problem for Iowa – a rural housing crisis that’s afflicting rural communities in one of America’s most important agricultural centers.

One needs to look no further than U.S. census figures to recognize the issues that face rural Iowa communities. The housing stock in roughly one-fifth of Iowa’s 99 counties shrank between 2010 and 2017, and more than 25% of the nearly 1.4 million housing units were built in 1939 or earlier. The shortage and age of housing options in the State are causing more people to look to the region’s larger cities for opportunities, which poses a long-term problem for the economic development of rural Iowa communities.

This rural housing crisis will continue to hinder growth across Iowa workforces and economies unless communities are ready to take action. A number of ISG partners have worked to develop solutions to rural housing roadblocks, including the four highlighted below. Eagle Grove, Aurelia, Humboldt, and Clarion all took realistic measures to usher in affordable housing options that will be lucrative for the future.


Eagle Grove - Thinking Outside the Lot

With a large industrial plant anticipated to bring 2,000 new jobs to the community by 2020, the City of Eagle Grove recognized that housing this new workforce would be critical to its immediate and long-term success. Rather than look right to new development, the City turned its attention to a series of dilapidated single-family lots in the downtown area.

After purchasing the lots, the City offered demolition and site preparation assistance while providing a new construction incentive. This process introduced quality housing opportunities for the new workforce and also allowed developers to keep housing costs and rents justifiable.

“This is exactly the kind of resourceful problem solving it’s going to take to keep rural Iowa communities competitive in today’s job market,” states Bryce Davis, City of Eagle Grove City Administrator.

Translatable Solution: Adapt single-family lots into multi-family developments as a means to accommodate large increases in anticipated population.


Aurelia – Build for Today, Plan for Tomorrow

A large obstacle to development facing Iowa communities is that they have struggled to either predict or respond to growing housing needs. The process of purchasing, rezoning, and preparing greenfield developments can take years of political and financial acrobatics, leaving cities with major gaps in housing while they hustle to introduce one-and-done options that may not be the most strategic for the community’s long-term needs.

Recognizing the need to combat looming housing shortages, the City of Aurelia had the forethought to purchase 40 acres of greenfield lots in 1997 and have since been introducing new development in phased additions.

“At that point in time, we didn’t have detailed plans for the property’s development but recognized that purchasing the land would allow our community the critical flexibility to respond to future needs,” says Barb Messerole, the City of Aurelia’s city Clerk.

The City was right, as the phased, eleven- and six-lot additions have allowed the City to manage capital costs while providing a sustainable solution to housing needs.

Translatable Solution: Proactively invest in greenfield lots today to prepare for tomorrow’s housing needs.


Humboldt - A positive Approach to Affordable HousingIn 2015, the City of Humboldt’s existing trailer parks were overdue for improvements, and the City was facing greater demand for affordable single-family homes. Sensitive to the families who occupied current lots across form the trailer park, the City recognized the long-term value of the property would continue to deteriorate and moved forward with a plan to stay proactive against the community’s housing needs. The City purchased the existing land and repurposed the trailer park into eight individual single-family lots aimed at young families and first-time homeowners.

“The last of the eight speculative homes built on these lots was recently sold, which highlights the demand across Humboldt for single-family housing and the development’s success,” says Travis Goedken, Humboldt City Administrator. Speaking directly of shifting housing trends, Travis also notes that “this development offered the city an opportunity to market new homes to the growing demographic of young families and first-time homeowners.”

Translatable Solution: Repurpose underutilized residential properties as affordable single-family developments.


Clarion – From Nuisance to New Opportunities


The City of Clarion lacked quality land to provide additional housing but lacked quality land for new development, so the City turned to a 24-acre property that had been overlooked due to its ground quality, flooding history, and lack of existing utility infrastructure. By implementing a stormwater retention basin in this area, the City was able to turn this land into a functional landscape feature for the City that supports new housing and community development, as well as future opportunities to install native plantings and potentially introduce a walking trail around the body of water.

“It completely changed our perspective of the property’s potential,” says Jon DeVires, Clarion’s Public Works Director. “It’s impacting the way we look at other areas as well, allowing us to approach challenges as opportunities to do something creative for the betterment of our community.”

Translatable Solution: Utilize stormwater management systems as a means to manage flooding and add amenities to new development landscapes.

Housing trends are called trends for a reason – they can be redirected and influenced with intentional, strategic efforts. Rural communities need to do more than react to rural housing shortages as they come, as each town can take action to prevent the housing shortage from limiting future development. Being proactive can set communities up for success moving forward.

To learn more about the efforts of these communities, check out “Iowa Rural Housing: Stories of Success” in the June 2018 issue of Cityscape, the Iowa League of Cities’ monthly magazine, by visiting

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David Doxtad, PE
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