Speak Your Piece: ‘Rural’ and Housing

USDA’s proposed definition for “rural” for some of its development programs is a step forward. This more flexible approach should be applied to the Department’s housing programs, too.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a series of columns on the USDA’s proposal to change eligibility requirements for some of its development programs. Previous columns have been by former congressional staffer Aleta Botts and the USDA’s Doug O’Brien.

USDA’s recent report and recommendations to Congress are provoking a lot of thoughtful comment on what the definition of “rural” should be for its development programs — not including housing. The agency comes down on the side of calling places rural if they have fewer than 50,000 residents.

The chief concern expressed by many is whether small communities, particularly those with 10,000 or fewer residents, will lose funding if they have to compete with bigger ones.

I concur with that concern completely but believe there are ways to ensure fairness. The U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests that a point system could be used to level the playing field. If this doesn’t do the job, then some variation of a preference or set-aside might be used.

The real problem here isn’t the rural definition but the scarcity of resources to address unmet development needs and opportunities.

Looking at USDA’s work from a broader perspective, I see it as a great leap forward and believe that USDA’s recommendation should apply to its housing programs as well. Common sense says a community is either rural or it isn’t. Once that question is settled, then you can determine its eligibility for funding from a particular program.

These are the key reasons why I welcome USDA’s approach.

It represents a positive step toward clarifying a hopelessly muddled set of “rural” definitions spread across the federal bureaucracy, mainly because Congress enacted them into law.

Add to these the Census definitions for “rural” and “urban” overlaid by the Office of Management and Budget designations, i.e., “metropolitan,” “micropolitan” and “nonmetro.” One result? Half the “rural” population lives in metro areas. (See map.)

By being inclusive, USDA takes the realities of rural diversity into account. Similar characteristics can be found in communities with populations of 5,000 and 45,000. The poorer the place, the less likely it is to have water and sewer systems, paved streets, street lights, decent housing, good businesses and jobs, day care and senior centers, health care and emergency services. Farming is a rural occupation, but there are relatively populous farm-worker communities. At the same time, there are resort towns with 3,000 year-round residents and 30,000 summer incomers.

USDA is correct when it says that communities don’t develop by dotting discrete projects around the landscape. Development is a process with multiple components including infrastructure, housing, economic activity, community facilities and services. Each reinforces the others.

It makes good sense to provide development capital on a flexible basis across communities. 

Rural development is something of a stepchild in an agency dominated by agriculture and nutrition programs. But for many communities, USDA development programs are one of the very few games in town — at least until they reach 50,000 residents and qualify for U.S. Housing and Urban Development “entitlement” funding.

Fencing off communities from development resources when they have fewer than 50,000 residents is counterproductive. It runs the risk of undermining sustainable development and leaving too many people and places high and dry through no fault of their own. If they lag behind the rest of the country, then sooner or later, the rest of the country will pay a price.

Sandra Rosenblith directs Stand Up for Rural America, dedicated to helping rural communities and developers gain attention, resources and policy support for their work. The views she expresses here are her own.

 

 

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