PENDER, Neb. -- Whenever Pender Public Schools hires a new teacher, the housing search begins.
Finding the new employee a home to rent or buy often takes several phone calls. Superintendent Jason Dolliver said no one's ever cited a lack of housing options as a reason for turning down a job at the school, but "it's just a problem whenever we have someone new."
It's not just Dolliver's problem.
Last fall, Thurston Manufacturing Co. in Thurston, Neb., just five miles north of Pender, created 25 new jobs. Chief Operating Officer Ryan Jensen said 10 positions remain unfilled.
"I'm sure the lack of available housing in Pender has something to do with it," Jensen said.
Pender Community Hospital CEO Richard Thomason has seen the same thing every time he's hired a doctor. He experienced it himself.
"I ran into that problem when I came here trying to find a place to live," Thomason said.
The lack of available housing is an issue, but one that any community the size of Pender -- population 1,002 -- would love to have. Large employers are adding jobs. A new hospital with the potential to create new jobs is opening soon. A regional social services agency is moving its central office and 40 employees into Pender to occupy the old hospital.
"We're just short of housing. It seems like if something good comes up, it's snapped up in no time," said Derwin Roberts, branch president of Charter West National Bank and president of Pender Economic Development Inc., which has focused energy on alleviating the town's housing crunch. "It worries you a little bit when you're trying to grow your community and your economy."
Of about 500 houses in Pender, recently only three were on the market, Roberts said. It's common for a house to be sold before it's even advertised for sale.
Roberts estimates that 65 percent of the town's workforce commutes, and it's likely some of those workers would like to live in Pender but can't.
The situation is tough for workers, who can see paychecks chewed up at the gas pump when forced to live in another community and commute to Pender.
"I'm sure that for people not coming in or people not taking a job, that has a lot to do with it," said Jensen, whose company employs 105 people who design and make Blu-Jet fertilizer application and tillage products and Circle R side-dump trailers. "I think there is more that could be done. Pender has done a great job being creative to solve the problem."
A 2009 Pender Economic Development housing study found a lack of decent, affordable houses for first-time buyers, especially low- to moderate-income families. The study recommended that by 2020, Pender should develop 38 new housing units, 18 of them rental. It also suggested rehabilitating 44 homes and demolishing another 12-15 that are in deteriorated/dilapidated condition.
The findings reinforced what many in town already knew and have spent much of the past decade trying to address, Roberts said.
Pender Economic Development raised money for a program that assisted first-time home buyers with down payments. It secured funds to help low-income owners improve their homes. The city has demolished a few run-down homes, clearing lots for new ones. Lots also are available in two housing subdivisions.
Roberts said another down payment assistance program is in the works. Pender Economic Development is working on a plan to build four duplexes to provide affordable housing for elderly residents, allowing them to downsize and free up housing for younger families. There are hopes to raise funds to buy older properties and rehabilitate them for sale or rent.
"It's hard to be patient, but we're getting our arms around the problem," Roberts said.
On the Pender Economic Development agenda is developing a long-range housing plan. Suggestions already include adding more low- to moderate-income housing and rental properties.
The housing shortage can be frustrating at times, Jensen said, but when your community is adding jobs rather than losing them, it's not a bad situation to face.
"If you had to choose which side of the problem to be on," he said, "we're on the right side."