Lack of Available Housing for Workforce Concerns Rural Counties

housing status

Economic development officials in Clearwater, Idaho and Lewis counties are concerned about the availability of workforce housing, especially in Cottonwood, Craigmont, Kamiah, Nezperce, Orofino and Pierce.

Some leading employers say their new hires often run into trouble finding housing in the region. A few workers end up turning a job down because of it. Since those recruited from outside the area typically are highly skilled such as machinists, welders, engineers and technicians, a lack of housing can lead to production losses for businesses.

Nightforce Optics, the Orofino riflescope manufacturer that now employs about 100 people, has encountered difficulty finding housing for machinists and professionals it tried to hire.

The National Guard Youth ChalleNGe program, preparing to open in Pierce in January, wound up advertising in the local newspaper for information about homes available for sale or lease to the employees it will hire.

Several factors explain why these rural counties lack affordable housing for local workers.

Despite Population Decline, More Housing Units Used

Even though the population declined in Clearwater and Lewis counties and only rose slowly in Idaho County over the past three decades, all of the counties added households between 1980 and 2010.

The age distribution of the counties has changed considerably. Birth rates have dropped dramatically and there are fewer households with children. The average family size has fallen considerably.

Many young people left the communities as job opportunities in the timber industry and agriculture declined. As a consequence, the three counties have higher proportions of senior citizens and lower proportions of children than the nation and the state. In the 1970s, their population was slightly younger than the U.S. population, and there were many fewer older people living alone. In 2010, nearly 30 percent of three counties’ populations was 60 years or older compared to 18 percent of the U.S. population. In 1980, 15 percent of the counties’ population was 60 or older, while 16 percent of the U.S. population was.

The three counties have high percentages of single-person households because their populations are older than average with a large number of widows and widowers.

The need for housing stock has increased as the trend of population decline reversed. Between 2002 and 2012, Clearwater County’s population stayed about the same while Idaho and Lewis counties’ populations grew about 5 percent.

Retirement Nests, Second Homes and Vacation Places

Lifestyle trends reduce the housing available for workers. A considerable number of retirees has moved to the three counties in the past 30 years. Some live there all year round, but others use local homes as second homes. In addition, the number of vacation homes in the counties has soared in the past 30 years. The statistics understate the number of second homes and vacation places in the counties because only those unoccupied at the time of the 2010 census were counted.

Commuters Take Local Homes

Parts of Lewis and Clearwater counties have become bedroom communities to the Lewiston metropolitan area. The rural lifestyle, outdoor recreational opportunities and low cost of living persuade many people to move from the Lewiston area into the counties. In addition, many long-term local residents work in the Lewiston area. Even in Idaho County, many residents work in Lewiston, Lapwai and Clarkston, Wash. About 80 residents of Grangeville are employed in the Lewiston area, which is 70 miles away.

Altogether, about a thousand residents of the three counties work in the Lewiston metro area.

Commuting is common. Given the scarcity of housing, people often end up living far from their work. Of the payroll workers living in the three counties, only 52 percent live in the same county where they work.

housing stock

Aging Housing Stock

The housing stock in the three counties is relatively old. There have not been many new properties, and most of the units added were homes built for specific owners. There have not been many new rental properties either in the past 30 years. The age of the housing stock also means that some homes eventually become unfit for habitation and must be destroyed.

Rental availability rare

People who move to an area for workforce opportunities often want to rent, but rental properties are rare in many rural communities. The three counties have high levels of home ownership compared to the state and nation.

Not Enough Churn

Once people move into a housing unit in the three counties, they are likely to stay there for a long time, which means there are fewer units coming on the market for sale or rent.

More Workforce Needing Housing

Although the population declined, the number of people on payrolls grew in two of the three counties. In Idaho and Lewis counties, the number of nonfarm payroll jobs grew in the past 30 years. Self-employment fell, but the number of jobs where someone was on a payroll increased. With a decline in self-employment as farms grew larger and many small, independent, or gyppo, loggers and truckers lost their livelihoods, there were fewer retail establishments. Once again, the decrease in the under-18 population is one reason why population fell while jobs grew.

Much of the growth in Lewis County has occurred in the past five years, so that puts special demands on its housing., Regional Economist
(208) 799-5000 ext. 3984

• • •

Interested in reading more articles like this? Consider subscribing to the Idaho Labor Department’s monthly economic and employment newsletter. Please send an email to