The challenges for the rural community depend on the location

For most of his life, Doug Ramsey, editor of the Rural and Community Development Journal, was planning to retire in the small town of Ontario where he grew up. Suddenly, it does not seem feasible.

“Unless something changes, we won’t be able to afford to retire in my home county,” said Ramsey, professor in the rural development department at Brandon University in Manitoba, Canada.

Ramsey’s sister still lives on the homestead in their hometown of Waterford, located about 90 miles southwest of Toronto. Her property was once a tobacco farm, but 15 years ago converted it into a golf course. The year 2020, with its deluge of people looking for outdoor activities, has been a banner year for the course; 2021 too. When Ramsey returned to town this summer, a new luxury brewery and bakery had replaced the hardware store. The changes that had been slowly occurring for more than a decade seemed to solidify.

“It changed everything,” Ramsey notes. “Some people might enjoy the craft brewery, but they also liked it when the hardware store sold things they needed for the farm. ”

Over the past year, there has been a widespread account of city dwellers fleeing to rural towns. Emerging data shows the full picture is more nuanced, but there is no doubt that the pandemic has laid bare the challenges rural towns already face. Some struggle to maintain their identities amid an influx of newcomers, while others try to keep their workforce competitive in the digital age. Many experts believe that the story of the pandemic’s impact on rural America is far from over.

“There is still a lot of unknown things about how the pandemic is finally going to end, and when it ends – if it does – how we are all going to be able to rebuild in the way we need to see our communities. thrive, “says Jess Carson, assistant research professor at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.

Urban flight? Not so fast.

Many rural residents saw more license plates outside the state at the start of the pandemic and watched with interest soaring house prices. But that may not indicate a fundamental change in where Americans live.

“I am cautious about the extent of reverse migration from urban to rural areas,” says Tim Marema, editor-in-chief of The Daily there, a national publication covering rural America. “The housing market is tight everywhere, so home sales figures alone do not indicate a migration. ”

Data on migration patterns are difficult to come by so soon after the onset of the pandemic, but early figures suggest there has been no mass exodus to rural towns. A February 2021 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland found that net migration out of urban neighborhoods doubled in 2020, compared to 2017-19. However, the report found that most of the net loss was due to fewer people moving to cities, and not more people leaving. Bloomberg’s City Lab found little evidence of large-scale migration to rural areas.

Much of the migration to rural America has been to high-comfort cities: those that already attract tourists and have second homes and a short-term rental market. Cities that have seen their populations and property values ​​soar – like Joshua Tree, Calif., Or Bozeman, Mont. – are anomalies.

“There has been a lot of reporting from cities like Bozeman, but there are a lot of rural areas like the Appalachians or the Mississippi Delta that don’t necessarily experience the same type of population boom,” says Samantha Booth, head of relations. government agencies for the Housing Assistance Council, a national non-profit organization focused on affordable housing in rural areas.

Cities rich in amenities struggle with housing, infrastructure

Booth and her husband moved from Washington DC to Bozeman, Booth’s hometown, in the spring of 2020. They had always considered returning, but the pandemic gave them the boost they needed. Booth, 30, bought a townhouse just before real estate prices in Bozeman skyrocketed, rising 50% between April 2020 and April 2021. Now she sees her Bozeman classmates out of town. Marlet.

“They can’t afford houses here,” she says. “Any city that sees this rapid growth in such a short period of time is going to feel a bit of the squeeze.”

Affordable housing was an issue for rural communities even before the pandemic. A 2015 report found that 47% of rural tenants paid more than a third of their income for rent. An influx of new residents can push native residents to more affordable areas outside of the city they work in, Ramsey says.

“It’s been happening for a long time, and COVID is another driver,” he says.

One way to promote affordable housing is to relax regulatory restrictions (such as requiring a certain number of parking spaces) and to require developers to allocate a certain percentage of new units to affordable housing. However, a Montana law now prohibits this inclusionary zoning, so this particular solution is not being considered in Bozeman. Federal programs like those run by the USDA can help rural people buy property, Booth says. She would like these programs to be expanded.

“There is a big federal discussion about infrastructure, but you can argue that housing should also be seen as infrastructure,” she says. “You can build as many roads and sewers as you want, but if there isn’t an affordable house at the end of that road, what’s the infrastructure to start with? ”

The influx of new residents has made it difficult for cities to determine how much infrastructure cities need amid uncertainty over who will remain after the pandemic is resolved.

“You go from ‘how to keep our school open’ to ‘now we have so many kids with city dwellers who have a lot more demands,’” says Ramsey.

This has left some residents of Bozeman hoping that the transplants will return to the city.

“A lot of locals like to joke that we might have a really bad winter and they’ll be scared,” Booth says.

Underserved communities need capital and broadband

As high-comfort communities face a wave of new residents, underfunded rural communities grapple with the same issues as before the pandemic, including access to capital, services like childcare. children and a skilled workforce.

Since many of these communities never economically recovered from the Great Recession of 2008, they had less of a safety net to deal with the economic blow of the pandemic, Booth notes.

Underserved rural communities may have only one bank or one daycare center. If that business goes bankrupt, it can leave an unmet need in the community and make the loss more pronounced. Child care, for example, was already a challenge before the pandemic, and the industry has been hit hard over the past year, says Carson, who studies the effects of COVID on communities in northern Nova Scotia. England.

“Having fewer childcare options is never good,” she says. “But when you live in a rural place and have fewer options to start, that’s really not good.”

The pandemic has also created more jobs online and rural communities need to invest in reliable broadband so that rural workers can compete.

“We need to allow them to work the same as other people and places, so that rural workers are not left behind,” Carson says.

Tension and hope for the future

In thriving and languishing rural communities, the pandemic has created tensions over plans for the future. Ideally, transplants to a rural area invest their time and resources in the local community, but this cannot overshadow the priorities of those originally from the city.

“We don’t want to upset the character of a place,” Carson says.

While the influx of city dwellers to rural areas is not as pronounced as peripheral cases suggest, Marema believes the conversation itself is beneficial.

“Even the perception that people are moving to smaller towns from rural areas means these places are getting more attention,” he says. “There is a buzz about it. I think this is a good thing.

These articles are shared by The Granite State News Collaborative partners. For more information, visit collaborativenh.org.

About Keneth T. Graves

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