STUART — Community leaders here don’t want anyone interested in moving to town to walk away because there isn’t any decent housing.
That’s why they’ve made affordable housing their mission.
Their efforts have helped keep this Holt County town of around 600 from blowing off the map.
The process started in the 1970s when the village of Stuart invested in Parkside Manor, a 42-bed nursing home and assisted living facility that was built to care for the elderly, as well as free up existing houses for new residents or people who wanted different homes, said Jon Schmaderer, a Stuart banker.
That was followed by the creation of the Stuart Development Corporation in the 1990s, which, Schmaderer calls a “conduit for development.”
Today, the corporation partners with the Village of Stuart, which operates its own housing rehab program, and the Central Nebraska Housing and Economic Developers, which was formed in 2005 by the Central Nebraska Economic Development District (CNEDD).
The latter organization operates in 17 counties in North Central Nebraska with a goal of improving housing and encouraging home ownership.
Those organizations provide a variety of means by which property can be developed. For instance, the development corporation buys dilapidated property, cleans it up and sells it to individuals or some other entity that will develop it. Or the corporation develops it themselves, Schmaderer said.
One of its first projects involved a hog farm that was technically inside the village and next to the city park.
The corporation received a no-interest loan from the village’s housing rehab program, bought the property in question, cleaned it up using volunteer power and built two speculative homes. Four lots then were sold to private developers.
That scenario has been repeated numerous times with all of the profits from the sale of the spec homes recycled back into the program.
While most of the houses start out as modestly sized and modestly priced, the people buying the houses can opt to customize them if they are able to acquire the additional funding either through the local bank or some other source, Schmaderer said.
So far, the houses have ranged in price from $56,000 to $145,000.
The process of cleaning up properties and building new homes has caused a domino effect.
“For every new spec house we do, two private homes are built,” Schmaderer said.
In fact, 36 new homes have been constructed in Stuart since 1995. Eleven of those were public projects and 25 were private.
While building new homes is fairly easy, tearing down unwanted buildings is not. Partly that’s because there is very little funding available for such tasks, said Mark Stracke, the village clerk.
“It’s an expensive proposition,” he said, especially if asbestos is found and needs to be properly removed. Then, “you can easily get $20,000 wrapped up in it,” Schmaderer said.
In addition to cleaning up unsightly property and constructing new buildings, more than 100 houses that have “good bones” have been given a facelift in Stuart over the years.
Much of that work has been aided by low-interest loans provided by the Village of Stuart’s rehab program, whose source of funding was the Nebraska Department of Economic Development.
There are guidelines that govern the rehab funding, Stracke said. For example, the house has to have a good foundation and a good roof. Plus, “you can add a bedroom, redo the kitchen and finish the basement, but you can’t add a garage or carpet,” he said.
Many of the people who apply for funding also use some of their own money and bank financing to complete their projects, Schmaderer said.
To encourage owners to keep their properties clean and tidy, the village has also implemented a nuisance abatement program. If a property has broken windows, broken tree branches, old tires or other debris on it, an order is issued and the property owner is giving a certain amount of town to rectify the situation, Stracke said.
“It’s tough, but it’s the right thing to do,” Schmaderer said.
The result of all of this rehab work and new construction is a community filled with modern, mid-sized family homes, which is just what leaders want to keep current residents from leaving and persuade new residents to move in.
And people are moving into the village that’s located 30 miles west of O’Neill, inbetween Atkinson and Bassett.
Although it’s never been a booming metropolis, Stuart has been a center of commerce since John Carberry started selling goods out of his sod house there in 1879. Like many Nebraska towns, the village is named for its first postmaster, Peter Stuart, who was Carberry’s father-in-law.
Today, people move to Stuart to work in the school system, the medical clinic, nursing home, fertilizer plant and in any one of the businesses around town or along Highway 20 that zips along the south side of town.
Stracke said he often fields calls from people interested in moving to the area. Recently, calls have come from people who were going to work at the nearby wind farm in Holt County and a truck driver who wanted his home base to be in the area.
Senior citizens are also moving off the farms and ranches into town and need housing, Stracke said.
While much of the credit for the town’s housing success can be given to public agencies, both Stracke and Schmaderer said it would not have been possible without the other partners. They include the bank that provides additional funding if necessary, the lumberyard and other businesses that provide the materials, the construction workers who provide the manpower and the village that owns the utilities.
In addition to attracting and retaining residents, high-quality housing generates expands the tax base and consequently generates more income, Stracke said.
“When we build a house, we’re getting property taxes, we’re getting income from electrical, water, sewer and trash. This will continue to pay us back for the forseeable future,” he said.
Although the process of creating affordable housing may sound daunting, it’s not, Schmaderer said.
“It’s one house at a time, one rehab property at a time. The only way to do it is to get started.”