Despite housing affordability, small towns face numerous challenges

Friday’s article in Minot Daily News about the affordability rankings of housing in North Dakota communities contained good news on one side, but on the other side, touched on the challenges that small towns face in our region, state and across the nation.

On one hand, the study cited in the article ranked mostly small communities as the most affordable for housing, with the caveat that the rankings were determined based on housing cost relative to incomes. Numerous factors contribute to this including supply and demand, income differentiations between those in major cites as opposed to small towns and general population trends.

However, relative affordable housing cost belies the fact that at least many small towns continue to face existential challenges.

One might think that housing affordabilty would attract an influx of new residents to small towns around the country. Small town housing patterns are similar from state to state. However, many small towns continue to diminish; many that are growing are in close proximity to metro areas and become relative rural suburbs or are absorbed; some innovate with great success; and there are random factors such as the explosion in smaller communities when the oil boom occurred. For decades though the pattern of movement has been to mid-size and large cities. Some small towns are sustained – if barely – by farmers and ranchers who live in the region but not necessarily in the town.

Small towns’ challenges include the dearth of jobs, the cost of commuting long distances, shrinking population leading to school closings, convenient access to healthcare, shopping and entertainment (particularly for younger people), and many other factors.

Despite relative housing affordability and quality of life benefits appealing to many, small towns will continue to face these challenges.

It’s a shame exactly because small town life is part of our American and North Dakotan legacy and remains an ideal, however impractical, to many people today.

To be fair, state and the federal government do provide some support for small towns. However, it’s a difficult thing for government to address given market forces and trends.

However, perhaps a greater focus on small towns would lead to new, successful ideas and prevent them from becoming just a memory preserved in a museum for our great-great grandchildren.

It should at least be a larger part of the political conversation.