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Young couple standing in front of newly constructed house.

Rock Valley Rallies for Housing and Growth

Collaboration, Extension Education, and IEDA Grant Lead to $8.35 million Investment

The city of Rock Valley, fueled by its entrepreneurial spirit, had grown for years. But then the town's steady growth began to stall.

"We had been seeing constant growth, with anywhere from 10 to 25 houses added each year. Then, shortly before COVID, those numbers really started to dry up,” said city administrator Tom Van Maanen.

For Van Maanen, the shift in numbers warned of a dry spell in the community's expansion, a view Dave Miller, Rock Valley's development director, shared.

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Dave Miller.

“For our businesses to grow, we need to continue to recruit and retain our residents. And to achieve that, we need housing,” said Miller.

Recognizing the need for action, Miller and Van Maanen collaborated with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach for education, and the Iowa Economic Development Authority for funding. As a result, Rock Valley has experienced an estimated $8.35 million investment in new housing construction.

In 2021, Rock Valley completed the Rural Housing Readiness Assessment, facilitated by ISU Extension and Outreach’s Community and Economic Development unit, learning how to self-assess and address their unique housing needs through their own community-driven initiatives. Completing the assessment enabled them to leverage a $10,000 Empower Rural Iowa grant from IEDA.

“ISU Extension and Outreach is working with housing in Iowa because it is such an important factor in the long-term economic development of communities,” said Abbie Gaffey, the community development field specialist who worked with Rock Valley.

A key step in the assessment process is to form a housing steering committee. Rock Valley’s 44-member group included city staff, elected officials, business and industry representatives, school personnel, and members of economic development organizations.

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Tom Van Maanen.

“Having been here 20-plus years, it was the first time I could remember we had that diverse of a group come sit down and try to tackle an issue in our community together,” said Van Maanen.

“Through this program, we were able to get all of those key partners to come together, not just once but four times, to really look at what our problems were and to come up with solutions that made sense for our community,” he added.

Gaffey praised Rock Valley’s comprehensive approach to addressing the entire spectrum of their housing needs. “From affordable housing for low-income and young families to integrating essential services like daycare and recreational amenities, they've looked at what makes a community desirable for living,” said Gaffey.

“By working with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, we were able to look at the big picture in our community, analyze where we're at and where we wanted to be, and then have a roadmap at the end on how to get there,” Van Maanen said.

Equipped with the assessment plan and the Empower Rural Iowa grant, Rock Valley initiated projects to develop housing incentives, revitalize urban areas, and combat blight. The concerted community effort has already resulted in the completion of five downtown housing units, with six more units in progress. Additionally, this initiative has sparked the construction of 20 new single-family homes and seven multi-family housing units.

Phil Kooima owns Kooima Ag, a local business that manufactures replacement parts and cutting instruments for the ag industry. He attested to the impact the initiatives have for employers and employees as well as the greater community.

“Retail, businesses, the school systems, the whole community benefits. Housing is key, and if a family can find a good house, it makes that transition to a new job so much easier,” Kooima said.

New houses are not the only impact. Rock Valley also is attracting new residents like Ryan Zevenbergen.

“A lot of the housing benefits here were better than in areas around. Building a house is expensive,” Zevenbergen said. He and his wife were particularly worried about associated costs such as taxes. A tax abatement relieved their worries and provided security, he noted.

To Miller, one impact stands out above the rest. Rock Valley’s growth dry spell ended with the community’s action.

“We've almost seen a record number of houses get built here in Rock Valley in the last couple of years. It's truly rewarding to witness the entire process from start to finish, to see it come to fruition with buyers and builders engaged, and to observe other potential projects currently in the pipeline, all thanks to this process,” said Miller.


Rural Communities Assess Housing to Kickstart Development

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Rock Valley housing development sign.

Since 2020, local decision makers from 54 communities have completed the Rural Housing Readiness Assessment and developed strategies to address their local housing needs. Results include:

  • 219 housing units have been improved or repaired in Newton.
  • 200 new rental apartments and houses will be completed in Grinnell by the end of 2024.
  • 180 moderate-income housing units are under development in Nevada.
  • $1.2 million in grants were awarded to Keokuk to address housing needs.
  • 36 communities have received $10,000 IEDA grants; this initial investment of $360,000 is being leveraged locally.

Contact Omar Padilla, community and economic development field specialist, opadilla@iastate.edu, for more information about the Rural Housing Readiness Assessment.

This impact story also is available as a PDF online and for download.

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