Nation/World

Town Addresses Growing Problem Faced With Housing Crunch, Endicott Builds Own Subdivision

Over at the new Lust place, the walkway leading to the front door is made of wooden pallets, and hay bales insulate the foundation. Family members joke about a “Grapes of Wrath” lifestyle.

But inside there’s nearly 2,000 brightly lit square feet and views in three directions. Compared to so many homes in rural areas of the Palouse, this one offers life high on the hog.

“You notice the view is lovely - well, you look out beyond the yard,” said Jackie Lust, opening a vertical blind to take in the silos and tawny hills beyond the muddy front lawn.

“And especially at sunset, when you look west,” she said, “it’s really lovely.”

Lust and her husband Donald are pioneers of a sort, being the first residents of a subdivision built entirely by the town of Endicott. Exasperated by a housing shortage that was threatening to limit a rare growth spurt, local leaders became developers themselves, laying out streets and utilities for nine lots in a wheat field on the northwest side of town.

“We had to do something,” said Mayor Randy Schmick. “We had to take a chance to do this.”

Selling the lots for $8,000 to $12,000 each, the town hopes to break even on its venture. But in a town of only 360 people - a 13 percent increase over four years ago - nine new households mean a lot to the town’s tax base, school system and local businesses.

“Basically this town for many years survived on agriculture,” said Donald Lust, a newly retired farmer who helped spearhead the town’s development effort. “Now we need a larger base than agriculture.”

The town, said Schmick, “has just been going along for a lot of years.”

But with recent increases in Whitman County’s rural population, he said, “We’ve got a chance to build our city again.”

Like the other dozen or so small communities in Whitman County, Endicott developed as a commercial center for the outlying farms of the Palouse. But with the increased mechanization of farming, smalltown populations slipped steadily from the 1960s through the end of the 1980s.

Then something - nobody is quite sure what - happened.

“We don’t really know what’s going on,” said Mark Bordsen, Whitman county planner.

To a certain extent, off-campus Washington State University students tightened the housing market, increasing the demand in outlying areas. Growth in Spokane and the Lewiston-Clarkston area also had an effect on nearby towns, said Bordsen.

Small-town leaders point as well to a rising interest in living away from the perceived crime, bustle and higher housing prices of urban areas.

“They want to get away from those headlines in Spokane,” said St. John Mayor Larry Dickerson, who is helping develop a 12-lot subdivision near the town’s nine-hole golf course. “They’re moving away from the city.”

For whatever reason, Whitman County’s population outside of Pullman, which dropped 6 percent in the ‘80s, rose 7 percent between 1990 and 1994.

Suddenly, small towns that used to hold dozens of empty and inexpensive homes found they were full.

“Now,” said Bordsen, “any new increase is going to have to require new housing.”

A recent analysis by the Pullmanbased Community Action Center estimated the county will need another 335 to 500 units of rural housing - more than half of them owneroccupied homes - by the year 2000. Nearly half the existing homes, most of which are more than 50 years old, will need some repair work, if not major rehabilitation, said the study, now in draft form.

Meanwhile, said the study, “there are very few developers in Whitman County that are experienced in development of housing in the small rural communities.”

Jack Streibick, a Lewiston developer, agreed that few developers are willing to answer the demand for new housing in rural areas, possibly because developments in each town would be too small.

But Streibick himself is planning to

build about 100 homes on a 45-acre subdivision in Colfax. And as the demand rises, other developers may join in, he said.

“I anticipate a lot of activity,” he said.

That will be a welcome relief for civic leaders like Endicott’s Schmick, who saw his town’s development effort turn into a maze of regulations, specifications and “a lot of headaches.”

What community leaders had hoped would cost about $30,000 ended up costing more than $50,000; the town’s one full-time maintenance worker ended up working solely on the development.

“It’s been a real learning experience for the City Council,” said Lust.

“I don’t think at least this council will do it again,” said Schmick.

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