Housing shortage impacts workers and employers

Madison County is a desirable place to live, work and play, but while seasonal residents and tourists bring a great boost to the economy, they may also create a shortage of short and long-term workforce housing.

There were nearly 3,000 vacant housing units in Madison County counted in the 2010 census. That number, which was identified to include only seasonal, recreational or occasional use units, was nearly half of the total number of housing units in the county.

Madison County planning director Charity Fechter said the census information not only nods to the county’s tourism and seasonal employment nature, but also points out two other underlying problems. Long-term rentals are less available because many homes are already purchased and in use from May to September and many remaining rentals or properties for sale are priced out of the range of the average, year-round, working Madison County residents, she said.

In this need for affordable workforce housing is a silver lining, according to state representative Ray Shaw. He said having a large number of people already employed and living in the county, as well as new members of the workforce looking to move in, is a good problem to have. With the help of some state programs and community driven efforts—grants, Habitat for Humanity and land trusts—Shaw said he believes the need for workforce housing can be resolved.

“We can look at this [need] with a smile on our faces because we have jobs,” he said.

Though jobs are available in communities around the county, the local economy feels the effects of the housing need as employers struggle to recruit and maintain skilled workers. Business owner Chris Gentry understands the situation, firsthand.

Gentry has encountered challenges when trying to hire seasonal and long-term staff for her Ennis-based grocery store due to high rental costs and a small selection of properties to choose from, she said. Gentry said her store does not have enough regular employees during the summer months to handle the increased number of customers so she often recruits seasonal employees using a foreign exchange program. She said she even purchased a home a few years ago to house the foreign exchange staff because they could not afford anything else.

“People looking for jobs think they cannot afford to live here,” Gentry said. “They see the prices of houses—it scares them and I lose them when I need to get people in here to work.”

Housing issues manifest differently in the Ruby Valley. Real estate broker Frank Colwell said he believes there are ample housing choices available for purchase in the Ruby Valley market for individuals and families wishing to relocate. He said prices of homes in the Ruby Valley range from $50,000 to $300,000, with an average price of $173,000. Colwell added that some of the problem might lie in an employee’s reluctance to buy a home until they are assured of their long-term job security in the area. Sometimes, securing loans and other financing can be difficult for workers who have brief job histories.  They then need to secure alternative, rental housing, which can be difficult to find in the area.

The story is different in the Madison Valley and real estate broker Sara Johnson said the Madison Valley has homes for sale with a range of prices, but homes under $200,000 are in short supply.

“That short supply on the lower end of the market makes it hard to find affordable housing for the average resident,” Johnson said.

While possible solutions work their way into local communities, the struggle for Madison County’s workforce continues.

“Businesses are happy to be here, but there are few places for staff to live,” Fechter said. “It is hard to recruit professionals and management. We do not need to build projects. We need to build affordable housing and keep it affordable through time.”

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