At first glance, Orange County’s housing shortage doesn’t make sense. One would think building in rural America would be easy. There is plenty of cheap land; zoning rules are generally less restrictive; and employers are struggling to fill job openings. Yet the housing crunch is an enormous struggle. In 2017 there were a mere 79,000 single-family home starts in all of “nonmetropolitan” America, compared with 223,800 in 2005.
One explanation is the unwillingness of banks to extend loans to contractors or developers looking to build housing where there are no comparison properties nearby. And given the relatively small, sometimes stagnant housing markets in rural areas, there are often few such “comps.” Without them, there can be no loans. Without loans, there can be no building.
The second issue is a lack of investors who see adequate potential return on investment in rural areas. The average home value in Orange County is a little over $100,000. In Bloomington, 50 miles away, the average price is more than twice that. It isn’t hard for contractors to figure out where they can earn a bigger return.
Finally, there is a lack of skilled labor.