WAKEFIELD, Neb. -- Like many young couples, Adrian and Maria Ruiz wanted to own their own house.
Renting a home eight miles away in Emerson, they searched for a home in Wakefield, where Adrian works, but with no luck.
"Nothing was available in Wakefield. We wanted to live here and wanted our children to go to school here. Ever since we had our son, we really knew we wanted a house. My goal was to provide that for my family," said Adrian Ruiz, a production supervisor at food processor Michael Foods.
They were looking into buying a home about 10 miles away in Wayne, but fortunately for them, they were able to take advantage of a new Nebraska program created to help families like theirs find affordable homes and also help rural communities like Wakefield increase housing opportunities for people who live and work there.
On Thursday, Adrian and Maria hosted about 100 people at their home, where local leaders celebrated the completion of the house, the first in the state to be finished utilizing Nebraska's Rural Workforce Housing Fund. Among the guests for the ceremonial ribbon-cutting ceremony was Gov. Pete Ricketts, who came to see the results of the Nebraska Rural Workforce Housing Investment Act, which he signed into law in 2017.
"I'm pleased with all the great work being done here," Ricketts said before Adrian and Maria gave the governor and other dignitaries a tour.
It's the first of many new homes that leaders in Wakefield and nearby Wayne hope to build through a revolving loan fund of more than $1.6 million they established using the Rural Workforce Housing Fund, a $7 million state fund that provides matching grants to non-profit development organizations to create housing options for workers.
Wakefield and Wayne both are short on housing in the $80,000-$150,000 range. As a result, workers commute from as far away as Norfolk and West Point. Eventually, some find jobs closer to their homes after tiring of the long drive to work, leaving employers constantly in the hiring mode.
"We've had employers tell us that the retention rate would be higher if there was more housing here," said Megan Weaver, executive director of the Wayne Community Housing Development Corporation, which applied for the housing grant and administers it. "In these small communities, if you don't have some kind of incentive for people to live here, they're going to go live somewhere else."
Wayne and Wakefield raised $750,000 in local matching funds, including $370,000 from the Wakefield City Council, $237,500 from the Wayne City Council and $25,000 from Wayne County. Michael Foods, Enel Green Power, which developed the Rattlesnake Creek wind farm in the area, and a number of banks and other local employers also contributed. On May 1, Weaver was notified that Wayne Community Housing would receive $639,000 from the Rural Workforce Housing Fund and a $250,000 grant from the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority.
The program was perfect for the Ruiz family. Developed for middle-income families, its aim is to help people who don't qualify for housing assistance but lack $20,000-$40,000 for a down payment. The couple received a no-interest loan for a down payment through the program and secured private financing for the remainder of the $185,000, three-bedroom home.
The blue-and-white home was built on a lot that had been the site of a dilapidated house that the city of Wakefield had bought and demolished. The program will lead to both new and refurbished homes in Wakefield, city administrator Jim Litchfield said.
"I think a lot of good projects are starting, and we need to continue moving forward," Litchfield said.
The Ruiz house is just the start. Utilizing the program funds, three other houses are or will soon be under construction in Wakefield and four other homes are being rehabilitated. In Wayne, the program has led to the construction of a triplex, and two single-family homes are planned.
The revolving-fund program will ensure that both towns will be able to add housing in the future.
Anyone who lives in a small town will tell you how big a deal that is. Jobs draw people to a community, but those workers need a place to live, too. Available quality housing helps employers attract and retain workers, Weaver said.
This program will help keep families like Adrian and Maria Ruiz in Wakefield. They'll shop here. Their children, Adrian and Isabella, will go to school here. When they moved into their new house on Dec. 20, Adrian Ruiz said, it felt like they were home.
"It's just a great feeling now being part of the community of Wakefield," he said. "Now maybe we can give something back."
Given the chance to buy a home, more families like them are likely to do the same.