Rural Illinois Perspective: Rural housing issues: Inadequate and deteriorating

Older rural communities often face inadequate and deteriorating housing conditions leading to a shortage of suitable and affordable housing, especially for young families and the elderly. While these problems did not occur overnight, for these communities, the question becomes, “What do we do now?”

A recent Rural Research Report from the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA) at Western Illinois University shows how Monmouth, Ill., used Census data, an on-the-ground housing survey, and photographs to increase housing awareness in the community.

The authors, Associate Professor Cynthia Struthers and IIRA Peace Corps Fellow Shawn Sample, found rural communities need to develop a plan to address their housing needs. This housing plan might be part of a comprehensive plan, a government-led inventory and evaluation of future community needs, such as land use, housing, population change, facilities and roads. A comprehensive plan helps identify whether houses are needed, where to put them, and how many and what types will be needed.

A housing plan also needs to address housing decay. Limited resources for demolition and clean-up may make it necessary to address health and safety issues before cosmetic maintenance. Enforcing existing building and safety codes should help reduce hazards and improve rental housing. Basic clean-up and cosmetic issues may be addressed as communities begin collecting information for their housing plan.

Monmouth, like many small communities, faced a shortage of building sites, and a comprehensive plan should help identify potential sites. Less desirable housing can be removed to make way for new housing. Such infill housing that blends in with existing housing can improve neighborhoods, while being tapped into existing water, sewer and electricity systems.

In addition to developing a plan, local governments need to learn about ways to reduce costs and other barriers to home builders. For example, communities should seek ways to keep taxes low, at least initially, for new homebuyers and educate new home buyers about successful homeownership. Rural communities also need to be open to construction methods such as manufactured and modular houses that reduce building time and costs for buyers.

Rural communities may also want to consider adaptive reuse to convert a building from one type of use to another, such as from downtown retail space to apartments. Although adaptive reuse and historic preservation may be more expensive than new construction, they help preserve and use existing structures.

Clearly, communities need to understand their existing and future housing needs. Building housing suitable for young families or meeting the needs of the elderly are two different issues. Retaining existing residents may require different strategies than attracting new residents. A well-conceived housing plan will take into account the specific goals of a community and provide a blueprint for achieving them.

You can obtain a copy of the report by contacting the IIRA at the phone number below or from our web site at

For more information about the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, visit If you care to comment about this column contact Timothy Collins, 800-526-9943 or

From the March 1-7, 2006, issue

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