Growing pains

Article by Steve Garbacz of KPC Media

Population growth in northeast Indiana’s cities and towns remains slow, and although new housing projects have been winding up in the last few years, home construction since 2010 is lagging compared with the decade before.

One is at least part of the explanation for the other: Without as many new homes going up, communities can’t gain new residents nearly as quickly.

The U.S. Census Bureau released new estimates this past week looking at population change in America’s incorporated cities and towns, as well as trends in housing development.

On the national picture, many big cities are growing rapidly. Regionally, the South and West are booming. The Midwest, along with the Northeast, is seeing far less growth. From July 2016 to July 2017, the South and West grew about 1-1.5 percent, while growth in the Midwest ranged from a negative .1 percent on the low end to a positive .4 percent on the high end.

Locally, the picture in cities and towns in DeKalb, LaGrange, Noble and Steuben counties wasn’t much different from 2010-17, with a few exceptions. Growth in Kendallville, Ligonier, Angola, Butler and Garrett was about 1 percent or less. On the brighter side, Auburn posted strong growth at 3.44 percent, while LaGrange led with 4.72 percent.

With the northeast Indiana economy and employers struggling to find workers, several local officials have pointed to a lack of available housing as a new limiting factor in the region.

That’s not just a problem here, as housing growth is slower in this decade compared with the 2000s. Outside of areas along the Mississippi Valley and petroleum-producing regions in the central U.S. such as North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and northern Texas, most of America has fewer houses being built.

Home development took a hit in the aftermath of the Great Recession, as a spike of foreclosures swept the nation and home prices plummeted. Banks also tightened lending procedures, which made it more difficult for potential buyers to secure financing. Home building has recovered in more recent years, but construction is taking time to catch up.

“The nation’s housing stock grew by more than one million last year reaching over 137 million units at a rate of .8 percent. This growth rate was slower than the 1.4 percent a decade ago between 2006 and 2007,” Census Demographer David Armstrong said.

In northeast Indiana, homebuilding slowed anywhere from 2 percent to more than 5 percentage points compared with 10 years ago, according to Census statistics.

LaGrange County’s housing stock increased about 4.42 percent, while growth in Steuben County was nearly 3 percent, about 2.5 percent in DeKalb County and just short of 2 percent in Noble County.

Auburn Mayor Norm Yoder attributed his city’s positive growth trends to a couple factors — a strong economy, a plethora of events drawing people to Auburn and the city’s proximity to Fort Wayne on Interstate 69.

“The economy is good. There’s a lot of jobs here. We’re also in very good proximity to the northern side of Fort Wayne,” Yoder said. “Geography has a lot to do with it.”

Larger cities such as Fort Wayne serve as economic engines for regions, which helps to draw people in. As the urban center flourishes, surrounding communities get benefits as people spread out searching for amenities such as good schools, housing, recreation and entertainment and even work opportunities.

Auburn, being the northeast corner’s closest sizable community to Fort Wayne, has become the first beneficiary of this system, which is why Yoder thinks Auburn is seeing growth that some other nearby communities haven’t yet.

“I think it’s all driven by market demand. Where people want to live, the builders will go there to build,” he said. “It’s really just hard to go against the demand supply charts. ... There is demand here for several of the reasons we mentioned that hasn’t gotten to the other communities yet. But it will.”

Noble County hasn’t seen the same level of growth, although housing developers have recently been chatting with city officials in Kendallville and Ligonier about the possibility of new subdivisions. Mayors toured some model homes in other communities to get an idea of the type of homes those builders could offer.

The Noble County Economic Development Corp. is also expecting to wrap up a countywide housing study this summer, which should provide guidance to communities as to what types of homes are needed and where. Noble County employers have jobs, but the county doesn’t have many options for people who would like to relocate here.

“In December we did focus groups in every community and (consultants) are working on drilling down on those themes. They also did some data snapshots of the larger cities — Ligonier, Kendallville and Albion — they did data snapshots for those and right now we’re about to end our survey and we’ve gotten over 800 responses from that,” said EDC Marketing Coordinator Sami Jacobs, who noted the study should be released near the end of June or early July.

Fort Wayne is a boon to the region, but Jacobs said Noble County is also trying to develop and highlight its own natural features, quality-of-life aspects and talent development for a rural area. That will make the area more than a mere bedroom community to Fort Wayne.

“Instead of saying we’re close to Fort Wayne and letting that be a main driver, it’s kind of ‘Live in rural areas, you can go to Fort Wayne on the weekend,’” she said.