Assessment provides insight into Clayton County’s housing needs

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This chart indicates the current housing needs and gaps in Clayton County as a whole.

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register


Clayton County Development Group (CCDG), in partnership with Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission (UERPC), last month unveiled the results of a housing needs assessment that offers insight into the current status of housing in Clayton County. 


The goal is to identify gaps and anticipate future housing needs in order to assist local stakeholders in finding solutions to current and future housing challenges.


“We know we need housing,” said CCDG Executive Director Darla Kelchen. “But the first question people ask is, ‘What exactly do you need?’ Without having a needs assessment of what the community is and what they’re lacking, you’re in the dark.”


This is Clayton County’s first housing study since 2016. Analysis is typically conducted every five years, according to UERPC’s Aaron Detter, who compiled the data. The pandemic, paired with a delay in updated census data, slowed the process.


County residents were encouraged to take surveys online starting in spring 2022,  and paper surveys went out to households a couple months later. The effort yielded roughly 1,500 responses, said Kelchen.


Surveys asked respondents about their income, work location/commute, satisfaction with their current housing situation, the type of housing that would best fit their lifestyle, how much they could afford to spend on housing each month, if financial assistance would be needed to build a home and what community amenities would be most important when considering a new residence.


The study used data to identify housing needs and gaps in each community, in rural Clayton County and in the county as a whole. It breaks down the number of community households within an income range, what home or rental value would be affordable to that group and the number of owner- or renter-occupied units in that range. A comparison shows the potential mismatch of certain household income brackets versus housing that would meet that demand. 


A negative amount indicates a housing shortage.


Elkader, for example, has 24 percent of its households, or 157, with a household income range of $24,999 or less. Yet, there are only 12 owner-occupied units within the $49,999 or less affordability range and 57 renter-occupied units for $399 or less. The total of affordable units is 69, or 88 fewer than the projected need.


Detter stressed this doesn’t mean residents don’t have a place to live. They are likely living in unaffordable housing or devoting a larger portion of their income to housing.


At the higher end of the household income spectrum, a shortage of corresponding housing could mean higher-income households are, by necessity, “taking up” housing that would be affordable to households of relatively lower income, stated the report. The housing affordability spectrum is interconnected and interdependent; increasing supply in one affordability level can have the effect of freeing up housing and increasing supply in other affordability levels.


Some incomes have a surplus of units in a corresponding affordability range, according to the assessment. Monona, for example, has 13 percent of households, or 102, within the $50,000-$74,999 income range. There are 263 total affordable units at the $100,000-$149,999 home value or $800-$1,249 rental range. Positive 161 indicates there is not as high of a demand for housing in this range.


“You can look at the whole county, and that tells you so much. But each community has their own gaps in the housing market, or their demographics are different. They maybe have an older population than some of the other places,” Detter explained. “Each community’s needs are a little different, and that’s why I think it’s helpful, whether it’s a developer or someone wanting to open a business or move to Clayton County, to give a snapshot of what’s going on, both in the housing sector and in the demographics of that community.”


There was a major commonality, though, said Kelchen: “I think almost all these communities named single family housing as what they were looking for.”


County-wide, building new was listed as the second best type of housing that would fit respondents’ lifestyles should they relocate. That was followed by condos, two-bedroom apartments and tiny homes.


Housing has a ripple effect in the county, according to Kelchen.


“We realize it when John Moyna says, ‘We need 40 employees,’ or Pattison Sand tells me, ‘I need 20 employees.’ Gencor Bituma: ‘I need employees.’ We either shuffle from one to the other, or we bring people here. But to bring people here, they need a place to live,” she explained.


“Without housing, you also don’t put kids in schools, because you don’t have the families here,” she added.


Kelchen said several factors contribute to the housing shortage. Gas prices are a recent one. 

“When gas prices went up, people weren’t going to travel. They said, ‘I’ll find a job closer to home because it’s too expensive to travel.’ Then you lose that workforce that may travel from a half-hour away,” she stated. “To keep them, we need housing here.”


Particularly in the county’s tourist areas, the increase of vacation rentals in what were once family homes has played a role. It not only exacerbates a potential housing shortage, but cities miss out on tax base, and a lower population can hurt grant and other funding opportunities.


“It does off-set—it brings visitors here, who spend money as well,” Kelchen said. “It’s just that house isn’t a full-time resident living here. That is a concern.” 


Kelchen feels the situation will even itself out, though. Vacation rentals sprung up during the pandemic, as travelers sought out places like Clayton County to escape more congested urban areas. That travel boom has ebbed somewhat.


“After awhile, there’s so many Airbnbs that will get rented and some that won’t get rented. When things balance out again, you’ll see the homes that aren’t used as often will then be sold or used as a family home again,” Kelchen said.


A lack of spec homes—or builders with the down payment funds to construct spec homes—has also hurt the county housing supply, Kelchen noted.


“In order to get a construction loan to build a house, banks say you need 15 percent down. On a $200,000 house, that’s $30,000. How many people just have $30,000 sitting in their account to build a spec home? They don’t,” she said. “There’s dollars to fix, but there just aren’t dollars to build.


To help alleviate this problem, Kelchen has worked with the CCDG board to form a funding program for developers. The project has received some grant funds so far, and CCDG currently has $110,000 in the bank. Kelchen hopes to use some of that as a cash match for additional grants, to continue growing the fund. Her goal is another $500,000.


“The program is there, and we have it set up. But it takes a lot of dollars to do it,” she stated. “We’re hoping we can grow it a little more, otherwise we’re only going to be able to do one or two houses.”


Space is available to build, Kelchen stressed.


“We’ve got lots available in subdivisions around the county to put single family homes in,” she said. “Now, we’ll have a developer’s one-page sheet that shows what each one of these towns needs. We can say, ‘This is what Elkader needs, this is the wage rate, here’s the housing they can afford and this is the gap they’ve got.”


Detter agreed the housing needs assessment will be helpful for developers. Elected officials will also find it useful. A December open house pulled in legislators, county supervisors, mayors, city administrators and economic development directors—all individuals who can act on some of the areas addressed in the assessment. 


“Maybe they’re trying to come up with incentives or where to direct incentives,” he said.


Kelchen advocated the importance of working together to complete the assessment. A county-wide survey is cost effective for communities both larger and smaller. 


“The Northeast Iowa Housing Trust Fund is a wonderful source for us and a good partner on this project. Northeast Iowa Telephone, Iowa Area Development Group, Clayton County Foundation for the Future, Upper Explorerland and all the sponsors to CCDG that put dollars in our office, then all the residents for filling out the survey. It took all those folks to make it happen. It takes a lot of partnerships,” she said. 


A full copy of the study and statistics from individual communities can be found at

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