Housing as Infrastucture: A Rural Road Trip Proposal for Ben Carson

    A "welcome to Kentucky" road signHousing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson said that housing is “part of the infrastructure of this country” during a March 20 interview with Fox News’ Neal Cavuto. In the same interview, he defended the administration’s budget—a budget that experts note as being particularly tough on HUD while also gutting funding for rural-focused programs across the government. But let’s give credit where it’s due: Secretary Carson is right in linking housing and infrastructure, and this is especially true in rural contexts.


    We know that decent and affordable housing does great (and cost-effective) things like prevent lead poisoning, improve health outcomes, and boost student achievement in school. Rural affordable housing is an economic driver, and a lack of rural affordable housing is thwarting economic growth and job creation. Thus, HAC and rural partners in 50 states are among the growing number of voices who view housing as infrastructure. One rural small-business developer said it best, calling the intertwined issues of workforce recruitment and housing stock availability the “two biggest challenges that rural areas tend to be worried about.”


    Those working in the D.C. metro area and other relatively affluent enclaves are (surely begrudgingly) accustomed to construction cranes hovering, lattes the price of a burger and fries in many other places, and paying outrageous rents. But it is different in rural America.


    Available housing is often dilapidated, not energy-efficient, and though comparatively cheap, relatively still unaffordable for the working poor or financially vulnerable. An elderly woman might have an $800 heating bill for her Jimmy Carter-era manufactured home.


    Rural incomes are 25 percent less on average than non-rural, and this statistic is worse in rural areas mired in persistent poverty. But bottom-line-focused rural leaders know that affordable housing creates jobs while offering “immediate fiscal benefits” for states and localities.


    Rural businesses too often struggle with lumber catching dust at the lumber yard and building supplies hardly moving at the hardware store. Immediate economic impact would be felt from housing investment—guaranteed to stay local, help local people, and be “shovel ready” (and then some). It might even help stem the onslaught of rural hospital closures.


    I’d challenge folks from the Trump administration, starting with Carson, to join a bipartisan group of Congressional leaders, my colleagues, and me on a journey—perhaps over the next Congressional recess. Start in Appalachia, say rural eastern Kentucky, and ask the folks there if federal infrastructure investment in housing would be wise. Imagine out-of-work miners constructing “self-help” homes, their sweat equity again paying a dividend, along with de facto job training.


    Then go north, to Pine Ridge in South Dakota, where 18 people crowding into a house is still too common, a place that Nicholas Kristof called “Poverty’s Poster Child.” Ask them about the immediate impact of improved housing conditions. 


    Next fly south to the Colonias on the U.S.-Mexico border where housing is in short supply, and modern sewage systems are too rare. In the Colonias, even modest investment does a lot of good, as creative nonprofits do cutting-edge work.  Going westward (or any direction, really), one could visit the homes of farmworkers and see the substandard housing conditions of those responsible for making sure that we eat.


    Those wanting recreation on their fact-finding mission need not go to counties mired in persistent poverty—85 percent of which are rural. Rural resort towns are filled with housing need, and the people who work in the service industry are often part of rural America’s hidden homelessness epidemic


    Finally, make no mistake: investment in affordable rural housing would play a critical role in addressing rural America’s opioid crisis. CityLab called the epidemic an “infrastructure issue” and cited the need for rural transitional housing.


    In rural America, where costs are lower for construction and land, infrastructure spending targeted toward housing—preservation or new—can boost the outlook for Main Street while providing an anchor for our most vulnerable families to achieve stability, and a shot at the middle class.


    Last year, over 7 million households in rural America experienced at least one major housing problem. We can do better, and political will is all that it takes.


    This post is part of a series from members of the Campaign for Housing and Community Development Funding tying housing to infrastructure.


    (Image: J. Stephen Conn, via flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Stephen Sugg takes on special projects at the Housing Assistance Council. He previously handled community development and related issues for Sen. Jean Carnahan, and spent six years at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation


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