Durham: Converted box cars could help solve Iowa’s housing shortage

By: - July 24, 2020 3:32 pm

Iowa officials are suggesting construction on tiny houses or boxcar houses as a way to address the state’s housing shortage. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Iowa could convert train box cars into homes and crank out new houses with 3-D printers to address a shortage of affordable abodes, a top state economic development official said Friday.

Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority and the Iowa Finance Authority, told the Iowa Economic Recovery Advisory Board she will propose legislation for additional spending after a recent $10 million round of workforce housing tax credits applications for rural housing. 

Debi Durham is director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority and Iowa Finance Authority. (Iowa Capital Dispatch photo)

Durham said the state also might look into tiny home developments, along with the box cars and printed houses, because “homeownership is the pathway to prosperity.”

There are other approaches in play.

Randy Edeker, Hy-Vee chairman, president and CEO, said housing is so short in the Chariton area, where his company has a major warehouse operation, his company has been restoring and selling houses on its own. Homebuilders have turned aside his pleas for construction in rural Iowa, he added.

Beth Townsend, director of Iowa Workforce Development, said inmates at the state prison in Newton are learning construction trades by building houses in a “really successful” program. If the state would pay for a new wall, the program could be expanded, Townsend said.

In general, the recovery board should be willing to challenge the status quo, Townsend added. “Not everything is working. Some things can’t be changed.”


Ben McLean is CEO of Ruan Transportation Management Systems. (Photo courtesy of Ruan Transportation Management Systems)

The board also discussed expanding telehealth services, which have grown during the COVID-19 pandemic as people attempted to stay home more and to do as much business online as possible. Broadband access is high on panel members’ lists of priorities, too.

State Chief Information Officer Annette Dunn said the state has fast-tracked a grant program, supported by federal aid, for fiber projects and other high-speed broadband projects that can help with telehealth and remote learning. “

Access to online services also has become more important in Iowa K-12 and college classes.

Ann Lebo will serve as the next director of the Iowa Department of Education. (Photo by: Gov. Kim Reynolds’ office.)

Ann Lebo, director of the Iowa Department of Education, said the state is using federal CARES Act money to offer local districts a platform for remote learning, and improved broadband access. “We know that this is sort of a Band-Aid and it will only be for this first year that we can fund it, but it can’t stop after that first year. I think if anything this will connect communities, this will connect families, this will put schools in better positions to provide those services.”

Mary Andringa, Vermeer Corp. board chairwoman, said even work-based learning, designed to get students on the job for in-person experiences, might need to shift at least in part online.

Kelly Garcia, director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, said she is talking to officials in other states about expanding telehealth services in Medicaid programs “because it has been so beneficial.”

On the farming front, Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig said the state should look at ways to pay farmers to capture carbon that otherwise would add to climate change as part of a broader collection of efforts to add value to Iowa’s commodities.

Gov. Kim Reynolds in June created the board, led by Ruan CEO Ben McLean, to look for ways to improve Iowa’s economy. The panel is accepting public comments

The board next meets Aug. 13. Working groups are expected to report their recommendations Sept. 17. A final report to the governor is planned Oct. 6. 

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