Results of the Regional Opportunity Initiative Housing Study

(BEDFORD) – Last month, discussion regarding Lawrence County’s current housing conditions and potential housing development began as a result of the Regional Opportunity Initiative Housing Study.

CEO Shance Sizemore

CEO Shance Sizemore, who sat on the Regional Housing Study Steering Committee, playing a key role in its success said the study will be an instrumental tool as officials continue workforce housing conversations in 2020.

The 170 plus page Housing Study is designed to be a strategic and frequently used road map to identify and meet current and future housing priorities.

The Indiana Uplands Regional Housing Study represents an in-depth study of the housing conditions of 11 counties – Brown, Crawford, Daviess, Dubois, Greene, Lawrence, Martin, Monroe, Orange, Owen, and Washington – that constitute the economic region of southwest central Indiana.

The study examines the unique circumstances of each county plus communities within those counties with populations of 5,000 or more.

The Indiana Uplands Regional Housing Study included a comprehensive public engagement process to help understand the vision and needs of the region. The planning team worked closely with the technical committee which included representatives or advocates for each county. To broaden public input, a series of stakeholder groups and public meetings were held in each of the counties, and two surveys (a general county-wide survey and workforce survey) together received more than 2,100 responses. Building on the community input, a wide variety of sources were used to develop demographic and economic analysis.

The Housing Study includes a thorough analysis of all aspects of the region’s housing market, along with practical recommendations and tools to help address housing issues and opportunities.

The document is organized in a way that allows individual counties and communities to easily access local analysis with implementation tools that can be leveraged at the local or regional level.

Results for Lawrence County:

Lawrence County is the second-largest county by population within the Indiana Uplands Region. Three cities within the county exceed a population of 1,000 residents with Bedford accounting for 13,292 residents and Mitchell 4,280 residents. The county has an older housing stock but has seen the market interest to purchase, rehab, and resale homes. Located just 24 miles from Bloomington, Lawrence County is often a bedroom community to Bloomington, but still, most residents live and work in the county. The southwest portion of the county is located within the Hoosier National Forest, providing a regional tourism draw in addition to Spring Mill State Park near Mitchell. A small portion of the northeast end of the county is within Brown County State Park.

Historic Trends: Lawrence County’s growth has occurred primarily during two decades, the 1970s and 1990s. Outside these decades, growth has been slower or flat. The American Community Survey (ACS) is estimating that since 2010 the county has lost population. This is likely reflecting the downturn at the beginning of the decade and not the more recent strong economy. It is likely that the 2020 Census will show flat or a small amount of growth.

Economic Characteristics: Lawrence County residents’ participation in the regional job market is evident in the employment mix for residents. The strong regional job market is also resulting in a low 4.7% unemployment reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in February 2019.

Industry Breakdown:

  • The largest industries employing Lawrence County residents are educational services, health care, and social assistance (24%) followed by manufacturing (18%), and retail trade (13%).
  • According to American Community Survey 2017 estimates 30% of residents identify management, business, science, and arts as their occupations, while 24% are in sales and office occupations.
  • Bedford and Mitchell are the two main employment centers. The employers in Lawrence County are primarily smaller companies, with some that employ up to 265 employees.

Commuting Patterns: Lawrence County employs most of its own workforce within the county.

  • While a large number of residents live and work in the county, nearly 22% of residents are employed outside the county.
  • Since 2010, the number of in-commuters has increased, however the number of Lawrence County residents employed within the county has remained largely unchanged.
  • The mean commute time in Lawrence County is 23.6 minutes, with 86% of the workforce traveling alone by car, truck or van. About 9% carpool to work.

Household Income:

  • Incomes in Lawrence County are about average for the Indiana Uplands Region in line with both Greene and Martin counties.
  • Based on the median incomes in the county’s two largest cities it can be assumed that most of the county’s higher-income households are living outside city limits.
  • Most housing assistance programs are based on household size and income and are focused on households making 80% or less of the area median income (AMI). The higher-income households in the county set this point slightly higher for households, allowing them to earn slightly more and still qualify for housing assistance. This is important because when the threshold is lower it is often harder for households to establish a financial foothold. If they can’t afford market-rate housing then they must keep their incomes lower to continue to qualify for assistance. The area median income is based on family size but based on the county’s median income80% would equate to a single income household this is an hourly wage of $19.22.

Housing Characteristics: This section uses the U.S. Census and local data to evaluate the supply, cost, and condition of housing in Lawrence County.

This information can help identify existing or potential imbalances in the market and may suggest policy directions for a variety of issues. Housing Age and Building History.

The median year structures were built in the county is 1978, with the median owner-occupied structures in 1979 and renter-occupied structures dating to 1974.

  • Lawrence County has more census tracts with a median construction year between 1990 and 2005 than many of the counties, likely illustrating the county’s role as a rural housing option for Bloomington.
  • The only census tracts with a median construction age prior to 1939 are in Mitchell and Bedford, typical of historic development patterns. Housing Occupancy. Housing occupancy has changed very little in the last 17 years despite a growing number of younger residents that traditionally would have been entering the housing market.
  • The average household size stayed the same from 2010 to 2017 at 2.45 people per household.
  • Larger households are in the east and northwest portions of the county; however, the variation is small. Larger households mean that the number of units needed to support a population is smaller.
  • Like household size, occupancy has remained unchanged since 2000. The current split of the owner- and renter-occupied households is 79% to 21%. This high rate of owner-occupied structures suggests a gap in the market for renter housing.
  • The vacancy rate in Lawrence County rose from 9.8% in 2000 to an estimated 12.7% in 2017. The high vacancy rate is driven by the county’s large number of “other vacant” structures which may include homes vacant for reasons of dilapidation, being used for storage, or being held for settlement of an estate. Often these units are not available for occupancy, meaning that the region’s true vacancy rate is much smaller. While some of these reasons for the vacancy are not within the power of the county or cities to address, many are and should be included in strategies moving forward to reduce the number of “other vacant.”

Costs and Incomes: According to the U.S. government, households spending more than 30% of their income on housing are considered cost-burdened.

  • Approximately 41% of Lawrence County’s households living in renter housing are cost-burdened. Only 23% of households living in owner-occupied housing spend more than 30% of their income on housing.
  • The high percent of rent-burdened residents is a result of the low inventory of rental property within Lawrence County, driving costs for rental units higher and likely resulting in a mismatch between cost and quality.
  • Median rents are also average for the region at $493.
  • Median home values for the county are $109,200, near the middle in the 11 county region. These values are supported by real estate sales. In 2017 the median sale price in Lawrence County was $99,900 and it rose to $104,000 in 2018.
  • There is a shortage of housing for households making less than $25,000, a market that cannot be filled through new construction market-rate housing.
  • Most rental units are priced between $400 and $800 a month a market that can also be difficult for the private market to construct without assistance from programs like low-income housing tax credits.
  • The very sizable surplus exists for households making between $25,000 and $50,000 annually. Indicating that a large number of households earning between $50,000 and $100,000 are filling housing that would be affordable to lower-income households.

The overall housing market in Lawrence County is considered affordable. A healthy, self-sustaining housing market will have a value to income ratio between 2 and 3. Lawrence County has a value to income ratio of 2.18 with a number of areas falling below 2. These lower-value areas may experience a significant gap between what it costs to construct new housing and appraisal value. This gap has to be filled either by the buyer or some other initiative at the time of financing.

Home Sales: Home sales over the past six years reinforce the perceptions of many stakeholders:

  • The demand for housing has steadily increased. Following the recession, buyers are re-entering the market at a record pace.

Increased demand has shortened the number of days quality homes will be on the market.

  • Sale prices have steadily increased and owners are pricing homes higher.

Since 2012, the median sale price in Lawrence County has increased by 39%, at the same time, the Census estimated median household income has only increased by 20%.

  • Sale prices in Lawrence County are well within the range of supporting new moderately priced home construction.

Housing Demand Analysis: The housing demand analysis builds on the population projections, housing trends, and community conversations to forecast the demand for additional housing. The model is built on the following assumptions with a 0.50% growth rate:

  • The proportion of the population living in households (household population) will remain stable through 2030.
  • Average people per household is expected to remain constant over the next decade. Some growth may occur as millennials move into their childbearing years, but 2.5 people per household indicate a number of families already live in the county.
  • Unit demand at the end of the period is calculated by dividing the household population by the number of people per household. This equals the number of occupied housing units.
  • A manageable housing vacancy rate provides housing choices for residents moving to the community. This number is high for Lawrence, but the “for sale” and “for rent” market is very low at only 3%. For the sake of this exercise, the vacancy rate will remain constant, but the number of “other vacant” has to be brought down and the number of truly available units brought up in order to provide adequate housing options.
  • Unit needs at the end of each period are based on the actual household demand plus the number of projected vacant units.
  • Replacement need is the number of housing units demolished or converted to other uses. Homes in poor condition or obsolete should be gradually replaced in housing supply. The number of units lost annually is based both on the quantity and quality of a community’s housing stock.
  • Cumulative need shows the number of total units needed between the base year of 2019 and the year indicated at the end of the period.
  • Lawrence County has an average annual construction need of 128 units. Without recent building permit data its difficult to determine how easily Lawrence County can achieve this goal.

Housing Development Program: Building on the housing demand model, the development program forecasts production targets for the owner and renter-occupied units based on the following assumptions:

  • Owner-occupied units will be distributed roughly in proportion to the income distributions of the households for whom owner occupancy is an appropriate strategy.
  • Most low-income residents will be accommodated in rental units.
  • The county’s housing demand (1,410 units) will be divided 50/50 between the owner and renter-occupied units through 2025 to address some of the pent-up renter demand and then split to 60% owner and 40% renter-occupied units through 2030

Approximately 270 new owner-occupied units should be priced below $130,000. This market will be met by the city’s existing housing stock or products that do not fit the traditional detached single-family homes, creating a filtering effect.

Nearly 435 rental units will need to be produced with monthly rents below $700 per month. These units will have to be generated through programs like low-income housing tax credits or gap financing.

In Lawrence County, many of these units were produced through the conversion of small, older single-family homes being converted to rentals. As much as possible these units should be a source of entry-level owner-occupied housing and not rental housing.

Development Potential

A suitability map was developed for Lawrence County using data from a variety of sources. By combining population and job centers, steep slopes, flood plains, government land, and major corridors a map was created showing three tiers of suitable development areas.

Very suitable land was defined as:

  • Areas with a 30-minute drive time to a population center
  • Proximity to a major corridor
  • Relatively flat terrain
  • No flood plains or government land.

As natural features became more prevalent and proximity to jobs and infrastructure decreased, the areas became somewhat less suitable.

This map is intended to be a high-level overview of where development would be most suitable from land use and environmental perspective. It does not consider the status of properties (whether they are available for purchase, served by utilities, etc.).

The best areas for development are in the center of the county and extending along Highway 37. Lawrence County has some of the highest levels of very suitable land within the region, resulting in part to the highly connected road network and more rolling hill topography.

Site suitability shows the total feasible areas for development when costs and location are not a factor. Priority opportunities for development that can be targeted with programs, incentives, and public investment include:

  • In Bedford, opportunities for new lots are present in the north and on land from the GM cleanup if matched with rehabilitation programs in surrounding neighborhoods. Other sites that could be cleaned up for development include a brownfield site around I and J Street and vacant lots around 5th and H Street.
  • In Oolitic, there are opportunities for continued new construction to build on current efforts in areas like Rolling Acres on the west side of the community. Rehabilitation and adaptive reuse are high priority opportunities to target because of the current interest from builders and the older building stock that is affordable for most people. The city will need to share risk in redevelopment, often covering costs for demolition or site preparation with the recovering of those costs through the redevelopment of sites and thus the long term property tax valuation increases.

Community Perceptions: The regional survey asked residents to identify their county of residence. This section explores the 174 respondents who identified Lawrence County as their primary residence.

How would you rate the impact the following amenities currently have on the attractiveness of your county?

Respondents were asked to rate a series of amenities based on their impact on the attractiveness of the county from highly positive to very negative.

  • No amenity received an overwhelming majority for being highly positive, however, several ranked very high or somewhat positive. These include community and cultural facilities and churches, county safety and security, and parks and recreational facilities.
  • Like the highly positive rankings, no one feature stood out as very negatively rated. When combining the highly negative and somewhat negative rankings, convenience to transportation facilities and nearby shopping rose to the top.

What new housing products do you think would be successful in your county today?

Respondents were asked to respond to whether they felt a series of different housing products would be successful in Lawrence County. The intent of this question was to explore the type of housing products that may be needed in Lawrence County.

  • Four housing types were seen as being overwhelmingly potentially successful in Lawrence County today – affordable, small two- or three-bedroom house; mid-size three-bedroom house; apartments; and independent senior living.
  • Townhomes/Duplex were seen as potentially successful but respondents were less sure about downtown upper-story residential. Receiving just over 50% support Downtown housing responses are often influenced by the perception of the existing downtown, which is likely mixed from community to community in the county
  • Respondents felt strongly that large homes with four or more bedrooms and large lot residential housing were less likely to be successful or at least in their eyes were not needed.

Which types of housing solutions would you support to reduce the cost of housing in your county?

Respondents were asked about the types of housing solutions they would support to reduce the cost of housing. This will be important as area leaders begin to determine the strategy for addressing housing issues in the county.

  • Housing rehabilitation loans were the most supported housing solution (53% of respondents).
  • When asked whether respondents would support the use of public funding to remove dilapidated housing, 86% said yes. However, when asked whether the public acquisition of dilapidated properties should be used as a housing solution only 40% said yes. This may be an area for further discussion and education. Sites often redevelop faster when the city can control the property and take the loss on-site preparation, regaining those costs through the taxes generated by the development.
  • The two least supported housing solutions were premanufactured or modular housing and higher density or cluster development housing (14% and 18% respectively).
  • When asked if they would support greater code enforcement, 74% of respondents said yes.

Strategic Directions

Lawrence County has great potential for growth if investments in quality of life amenities, housing rehabilitation, and lot development are continued. Many older homes are being rehabilitated and returned to the housing market, a positive sign of reinvestment and interest in living in Lawrence County. Not unlike the rest of the region, market-rate rentals are needed, which often will require communities to share risk with developers.

Themes

  • New market-rate rentals are needed. Stakeholders from the major employers shared that their workforces are paid in ranges that can support new market-rate rentals, but this market often gravitates to Bloomington. Younger employees are likely looking for some of the social and entertainment amenities that Bloomington can provide, but they are also looking for quality units similar to the markets they are moving from.
  • Many older homes, but people doing rehab projects. Lawrence County, and especially Bedford, has an older housing stock that is still within price points to make “flipping” financially feasible. For a contractor to restore and sell homes they have to be priced low enough to return an adequate profit and not have structural defects that will erode the profit margins. Bedford appears to have a supply of these homes, offering good affordable and move-in ready housing. A number of these homes may be filled with older individuals who will need housing alternatives that are lower maintenance.
  • Additional lots needed to serve development demands in all of the communities. There is a limited supply of buildable lots in all of the communities.
  • Need continued investments in quality of life amenities to attract a wider income range to stay in the county. All of the communities have made efforts to improve the quality and perception of their cities, from investment in the downtown, to trail development, to expanded code enforcement.

Goals

Continue to invest in the quality of life features – trails, parks, schools, downtowns, etc.

Bedford and Mitchell are both making significant efforts to improve the quality of life in each community. These efforts are essential to continue to be competitive in a regional market. Jobs and potential job growth is strong, but to capture those employees takes more than housing. Quality environments, including schools, parks, trails and unique environments, like the county’s historic downtowns are other factors that influence where people want to live or open businesses.

Share risk with the development community on infill and redevelopment sites

Very rarely the rewards out way the risks for the private market on a redevelopment site. Cities will need to identify infill sites where they can aid in site prep and share some of the risks in the development of new market-rate residential units. This also means that the cities will share in the rewards, including increased property evaluations on these sites and new residents who purchase everyday needs within the community.

Establish a funding strategy for affordable lot development

Lot development is occurring within Lawrence County, but on a minimal level and the costs to the development community to extend infrastructure have to be passed on to the homeowner. These costs have risen at a much faster rate than incomes in most communities in the Midwest, resulting in high-cost homes that only meet the housing needs of households that can afford the $225,000 plus home. For more affordable housing there will need to be more affordable lots. The cities will need to establish a strategy that is comfortable to them but can involve site preparation on infill sites to assist in infrastructure extension. These approaches will be further explored in the final section of this document.

The full study can be found here.

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