Workforce Housing Program Tries to Tackle Shortage of Employees

Dec. 26, 2018, 6:45 a.m. ·

Daren Wilkinson stands before a house his company is building in North Platte (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Across Nebraska, companies say they want to hire more people, but those people can’t find places to live. Now, a new program is trying to change that.

In TV ads and on its YouTube channel, North Platte’s largest employer, the Union Pacific railroad, is looking for employees.

“Union Pacific is looking for some hometown heroes, right here in North Platte,” an announcer says, as an aerial view of its huge Bailey Yard alternates with images of working people. Later comes the pitch, trying to lure people to this city of just under 25,000 in central Nebraska. “Now offering up to $25,000 in hiring incentives. Apply today at, and help build America.”

It’s not just Union Pacific looking for employees to move to North Platte says Gary Person, who heads North Platte’s Chamber of Commerce and Development Corporation.

“There’s over a thousand jobs open in our economy… Great Plains Health, Walmart distribution center, Masonite…a door-manufacturing company,” Person said, adding “I could go on and on and on.”

Part of the problem is those companies can’t find enough employees. And that problem begins at home – literally.

Example of home in the "workforce housing" price range. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

In a residential neighborhood a few miles away, men and machines are moving around.

“We have three houses under construction in various stages,” explained Daren Wilkinson, owner of North Platte construction company Wilk Builders. “This one, the framing’s going up, and we then have the foundation over here, and we’ve got concrete going in the garage for the garage floor, and then I’m digging a hole at the end there for the third one.”

The houses Wilkinson’s building here are the first to be started under a new workforce housing program overseen by the state Department of Economic Development.

That program started after the Legislature voted in 2017 to transfer $7 million in unused funds from an affordable housing program, which directs subsidies to people based on income.

Nancy Striebel of the Lincoln County Community Development Association says the affordable housing program, with homes costing around $115,000, aims at building something different from workforce housing.

“We’re talking about a three-bedroom, one bath house with a single car garage – 1,200 square feet – and they’re talking more,” Striebel said.

By contrast, Person says the workforce housing program requires a minimum of 1,400 square feet with a two-car garage. Homes can be larger than that, but under state guidelines, they can’t sell for more than $275,000.

Number of housing units built by decade. (Source: North Platte/Lincoln County Housing Needs Assessment)

Person says the need for additional housing has been building up for years. In the 1970s, an average of more than 280 homes were built in North Platte every year. By the beginning of this decade, that number dropped to less than 40, and in some years, less than 20.

“North Platte probably hasn’t seen a volume builder in the housing industry in probably three decades,” Person said.

Person says volume gives developers a big cost advantage.

“A volume builder can do 10 to 20, 30 houses a year,” Person said. “Then you can buy your materials in volume to buy down the costs.”

Without that, Person says, building costs in North Platte can be 10 to 20 percent higher than in Lincoln or Omaha.

That affects employers like Great Plains Health. Great Plains runs the North Platte hospital, and provides clinics and services to 38 counties and parts of Colorado and Kansas. CEO Mel McNae says housing prices affect Great Plains ability to attract employees like registered nurses.

“Communities like us are competing for these RNs. And when they have to come into our community and settle for a home that is not as robust or is more expensive than on the eastern side of the state, where are you going to go?” McNae asked.

Average hourly wages for RNs in MidPlains region (including North Platte) are 3-4 percent below Lincoln and Omaha. (Source: Nebraska Department of Labor)

The workforce housing program aims to change that calculation. Person says the program will provide a subsidy worth up to $12,000, to builders or buyers, for the cost of new homes up to $275,000.

“Certainly our goal is to get it below that. But we’re also seeing evidence that there are local residents who will move up into these homes, thus opening a lower cost, older home for other workforce recruitees to come in and live in our community,” he said.

Back at the construction site, Wilkinson says $275,000 is what he’ll ask for the 2,000 square foot, three bedroom, two-car garage homes he’s building.

Person says with nearly $400,000 from the state, matched by $800,000 in local funds, that’s enough to subsidize just over 100 single family, duplex and triplex homes in the next couple of years.

Asked why housing should be subsidized in places it is more expensive to build, McNae of Great Plains Health lists the virtues he says people see in more rural area.

“Gosh, I only have to commute 10 minutes to get to my job. There’s less stress in the community, the crime rate is less, their children can actively be safe walking to and from school. All those feature into why we need to make sure that our rural communities survive,” McNae said.

And North Platte is just the start. Plans are in the works for hundreds more workforce homes in towns across Nebraska.

Editor's note: This story is part of our "Best of 2018" Signature Story report. The story originally aired and was published in August.