Pathways to Improved Housing Quality in Rural Places

Quality housing is key to rural community health & economic development

By Edgar Camero

Housing quality is a challenge that is often overlooked in rural communities. Housing quality refers to the physical conditions of a home that contribute to the health outcomes of individuals. This blog post focuses on actions and policies that address housing quality issues — specifically, aging housing stock. Improving and conserving older homes constitute a promising pathway for addressing housing quality in rural communities because these strategies can help improve housing conditions for renters and homeowners alike. This blog post illustrates how these strategies can improve the health of households as well as the local economy.

Aging Housing Stock in Rural Communities

Having access to quality housing can affect the health of not just an individual household but also their whole community. Out of approximately 124 million households in the United States, 14% are in rural communities. In those 17 million rural households, renter-occupied households exhibit striking disparities when compared with owner-occupied households across social and economic indicators such as race or ethnicity; income and poverty; and gender. Despite these differences, aging housing stock is a housing quality issue that affects rural households regardless of whether they own or rent. Aging housing stock is defined as housing units that were built before 1980. In rural communities, more than half of all households — an estimated 9.4 million households — live in units that were built prior to 1980.

Aging housing stock can exacerbate poor housing conditions in rural places, affecting the lives of households and entire communities. Rural households face a range of housing quality issues — such as inadequate water access, faulty plumbing, poor ventilation, and leaking roofs — and these issues are often worse in units that were built prior to 1980. It is more difficult for aging housing stock to meet habitability standards because older homes are more expensive to maintain. When homeowners and renters defer home maintenance or improvements, the cost of the improvements ends up being much higher. This expense factor contributes greatly to the more than 450,000 vacant homes in rural communities that are abandoned or in need of repair. Housing programs such as proactive rental inspection programs and housing rehabilitation programs can incentivize rural households to make home improvements when they are needed, making them less costly in the future.

Programs That Preserve Housing Stock

Proactive rental inspection programs and housing rehabilitation programs are practical solutions that rural communities can use to improve and conserve their housing stock. Federal funding can help fund these and other solutions.

Proactive Rental Inspections

A proactive rental inspection (PRI) program is a housing program that aims to protect tenants from substandard housing conditions by monitoring and identifying housing quality issues before housing stock begins to deteriorate. Proactively inspecting rental housing helps keep people in their homes, improve housing quality, and protect tenants’ health and well-being. In addition, PRI programs help address housing-related health inequities experienced by populations such as renter households of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC), who have historically been underserved by governments and institutions. BIPOC renter households account for 27.5% of total renter households in rural communities. PRI programs free tenants from the burden of initiating requests or complaints and allow municipalities to tailor their housing inspections to address specific local issues. By adopting PRI programs, communities can begin the transition from a complaint-based system that incentivizes non-compliance to a cooperative compliance system.

PRI programs can help preserve community stability and property values by requiring maintenance of housing properties and preventing them from becoming unsafe or undesirable to live in. Maintaining and increasing property values is important in rural communities in order to preserve and potentially increase local tax revenues, which are needed to fund public services.

A key point about PRI programs is that strong collaboration between PRI stakeholders such as tenants, landlords, policymakers, and community advocates is required to work effectively toward a shared goal. To learn more about creating a PRI program, see A Guide to Proactive Rental Inspections.

Housing Rehabilitation Programs

A housing rehabilitation program is an essential strategy for maintaining the quality of housing for tenants and homeowners. Housing rehabilitation programs provide owners with financial assistance for home repairs or modifications. Rural households are often unable to make needed housing repairs because an aging housing unit and multiple housing quality issues make the repairs prohibitively expensive. An inability to make immediate repairs results in higher costs and more housing issues in the future. Housing rehabilitation programs provide loans or grants to help households afford home improvements, incentivizing rural households to make home improvements or repairs when they are needed instead of waiting. In addition, housing rehabilitation programs can be adapted to address specific housing issues in a rural community. For example, a housing rehabilitation program can be designed to include eligible activities such as improving energy efficiency, fixing leaky roofs, or repairing bathrooms.

A successful housing rehabilitation program centers input from community members in all phases of its development, from program design through implementation. Designing a housing rehabilitation program that centers community input — especially from households most affected by poor housing quality — will help ensure that the program addresses the housing needs of everyone in a rural community.

A housing rehabilitation program can increase both housing stability and neighborhood stability. The following examples reflect the varied housing rehabilitation strategies that organizations are using to improve housing quality in their rural communities.

  • The Rural Alaska Community Action Program, Inc., administers several home improvement programs, including a weatherization program, a mobile home repair program, a senior access modification program, and a home upgrade program for people with physical disabilities.
  • NeighborWorks Umpqua, serving several counties in southwest Oregon, administers a home repair grant program to assist eligible homeowners in making needed home repairs. The organization is part of the Rebuilding Together network, which provides free home repairs for low-income homeowners.
  • The North Country Rural Preservation Apartments project rehabilitated eight apartment complexes in rural New York State that house households with low to moderate income and households with older adults. The renovations included new roofs, new energy-efficient appliances, and improvements to accommodate people with disabilities.

Federal Funding Programs

Sustainable investment streams are needed at the federal level to implement new housing quality programs and policies in rural communities or to fund existing ones. Two federal programs that can help create or fund PRI programs and housing rehabilitation programs are the HOME Investment Partnerships Program (HOME) and the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program. HOME and CDBG funding are necessary because these funding streams are used to address local housing and community development needs. These programs play a key role in improving the quality of existing housing in rural communities. In addition, because these awards trickle down to the local level, they help support the local nonprofits that most often administer housing programs in rural communities. In fact, local nonprofits are the catalyst that convert private and public funding to actions that tackle housing quality issues. Local nonprofits often juggle multiple responsibilities and lack funding but are the main housing advocates in rural communities. Reductions in HOME and CDBG funding lessen the impact that local nonprofits can have in addressing rural housing issues, whereas stabilizing that funding is an investment in on-the-ground action by community-based organizations to improve access to quality housing.

How Quality Housing Benefits Rural Residents

Quality housing is a foundational element in retaining residents in rural communities as well as attracting new residents. Having access to quality housing benefits individuals of all ages and abilities. For older adults — individuals aged 65 years or older — access to quality housing allows the choice and the opportunity to age in place. Quality housing also provides safe and habitable living environments for the 27.5% of households that have at least one child, allowing children to develop mentally, physically, and emotionally.

Quality housing can also help attract and retain new workforce talent, including remote workers, to rural communities. Remote workers may be new residents or former residents who are ready to return. However, it is important to recognize that increased opportunities for remote work can result in increased housing costs, creating housing affordability challenges. Ultimately, however, people with many types of skills are required to build and grow a strong local economy — and those people all need safe, stable, and affordable housing.

Quality housing and people are foundational elements that rural communities need to attract public and private investment and activate economic development. Varied funding streams can help pay for improvements — such as broadband infrastructure — or can help finance activities that build local capacity — such as tech workforce development. Thus, funding for quality housing can catalyze investment that supports more jobs, positive health outcomes, and the revival of rural communities.

This blog post is the third in our Toward Better Rural Futures series, which highlights the unique assets of rural communities as well as the challenges they face. Access our collection of resources for rural policymaking to read the other installments in the series.

This blog series is part of the Toward Better Rural Futures project, which participates in the Aspen Institute’s Thrive Rural Initiative and is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Toward Better Rural Futures aims to foster greater collaboration and alignment across local, regional, and state levels of government, equipping leaders with the tools and knowledge to fundamentally shift power, opportunity, and resources in order to create healthy rural places where everyone can thrive.

Cover image: OZinOH via Flickr


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