When housing costs hinder hiring
As rural officers are priced out of the housing market, department heads scramble to fill positions and retain experienced staff
Chief Jamie Shaw presides over 11 officers at Ketchum Police Department in Idaho, and he’s frustrated. His department, already small, is down several positions and although the pay is “pretty good” by Idaho standards, it can’t keep up with the housing costs. A 2-bedroom apartment in Ketchum can run nearly $2,000 a month if any were available. To buy a single-family home is closer to a million. Applicants attracted by the pay routinely decline employment offers after looking for a place to live and failing to find one.
Ketchum Police Department serves a 10-square mile community of about 2,700 people – technically a small town, but tourists, billionaires and skiers triple the population every weekend, thanks to nearby Sun Valley resorts. Competition from wealthy homebuyers and geographical constraints on development makes it so hard to find a place to live that Ketchum made national news when city officials proposed a tent city for local workers.
Even hiring a local isn’t fail-safe. When I spoke with him, Chief Shaw was working with a recruit to find a new place after getting a call from him while he attends the police academy 150 miles away. The recruit advised his new chief that his rent was just raised $600 a month, and that’s $600 too much. “They come in young, they like the job, but eventually they want a family and have to leave,” Shaw said.
Twelve miles away at the Hailey Police Department, Chief Steven England described the rental market as a void. His latest hire has been commuting 60 miles on mountain roads, hoping to move closer but with no luck. A long commute in an urban area can be annoying, but routine; in a mountain climate, snow, icy roads and rockslides can make it slow and risky.
“Pandemic refugees” leaving cities to buy second, third, or even fourth homes, combined with a proliferation of short-term vacation rentals, have cranked up the pressure on the housing market. Local governments have rejected the idea of rent caps, or regulations for short-term rentals. On the other hand, Chief England noted, the pandemic normalized remote work, providing a path to well-paying employment for some officers’ spouses; a solid second income smooths out a few of the housing market’s painful realities.
England says he has discussed the possibility of building city-owned housing to rent to public employees, but city administrators can’t figure out how to help in the short term. Builders are so busy with high-end projects that there’s a long backlog slowing down permitting and construction. One young officer and his family are taking advantage of a local loan program designed to get first responders, teachers and nurses into refurbished properties at relatively low cost, but that’s only one.
“I’ve thought,” England said, “that if it does get that bad, we could use the department’s back lot for trailers or modular housing. After all, we have a locker room, showers and a full kitchen in the police station. It might work at least for the singles.”
Survey results confirm struggles
The Idaho chiefs aren’t alone in the struggle. In a recent Police1 survey, nearly two-thirds of the responding officers indicated that housing costs are an obstacle to retention and recruiting for their department, or are manageable only for a lateral transfer coming in with a big down payment.
Survey respondents described obstacles that don’t make the news, like federal and state officers passing up promotions because they couldn’t find or couldn’t afford housing where they’d have to move. Only 4% said that housing availability has no impact on hiring or working in their area. The exponential escalation of home prices is complicating police recruitment nationwide, and rural and small towns are the least equipped to manage it.
The impact of California’s “Green Rush”
Sheriff Tim Saxon in Trinity County, California, is hitting a hiring wall built by the housing shortage. Trinity County is 3,000-square-miles of steep mountains and valley, populated by fewer than 14,000 residents. That vast space is often patrolled by only one or two deputies backed up by game wardens and Forest Service officers.
Like Ketchum and Hailey, Trinity County is hampered by a lack of developable land. Nearly 80% of the county is publicly owned, impacting availability and the tax base. Buyers seeking second homes to escape crowds during the pandemic have impacted both availability and price, but Trinity has another twist to manage: it’s one of the most productive places in the nation for growing now legal cannabis and getting a license to grow legally requires that the property be buildable, or already have a residence. California’s “Green Rush” has driven the price of land suitable for growing into orbit, as well as removing many homes from inventory. Sheriff Saxon’s deputies and recruits can’t compete.
“Our pay and benefits are low, compared to competing state and federal agencies, and compared to neighboring counties. This is an economically depressed county, without the resources to pay a higher wage, but the cost of living here doesn’t reflect that,” Saxon said.
The promised financial benefits of legal weed have not materialized for Trinity County. Rental inventory is near zero; one new hire lived in a travel trailer in a park for months, then left not just Trinity County but law enforcement altogether. Policing is a hard enough sell right now without being unable to find a safe and affordable home, too.
Some agencies are battling through
The theme isn’t universal: Nyssa Police Department in eastern Oregon has simply had so little turnover in the past five years that recruiting hasn’t been on Chief Ray Rau’s radar, at all. This summer he will take over as chief in Tillamook, Oregon, and he hopes to increase officer satisfaction with that workplace too, as a hedge against the problem of coastal housing costs.
Similarly, Chief Julie Matthews in Thermopolis, Wyoming, says that her town’s status as a “stopping place” rather than a destination has kept housing costs in check so far. Her recent hires have been young and single, and apartment owners in Thermopolis like to rent to her officers. They have clean backgrounds, and their take-home cars in the parking lots keep problems down.
Solutions to the crisis
While officers, chiefs and sheriffs in some of the nation’s hottest markets are struggling with the cost of housing, a few places are finding ways around the property puzzle using both financial tools and innovation. Some partial solutions are as simple as developing relationships between the police department and rental owners to get a heads-up when a vacancy is pending, or single officers renting a room rather than an apartment. Other solutions are more involved, and more permanent.
Moberly, Missouri, a town of about 14,000 residents, is one such innovator. The agency’s pay scale is low, which is typical for small towns in the Plains but hard on recruiting and retention. Officers were commuting the half-hour from Columbia because local housing costs had been driven up by new industry developments. An urban renewal program condemned many older, unsafe homes, removing them from the local housing inventory. According to Community Policing Officer Adam Swon, a decent 3-bedroom rental can run $800 a month. That’s not high by West Coast standards, but it’s out of reach for most Moberly officers.
It’s common for law enforcement agencies in the eastern US to require in-town residency or at least prescribed response times. Moberly took a different approach. The department relaxed required response times and instead offered a pay incentive for officers who moved into town. The $300 housing allowance made market rents feasible, and the four newest hires immediately moved into town.
As a bonus, the city recovers a substantial portion of the allowance through local sales and property taxes now paid to Moberly, rather than Columbia. Since the department has no residency requirements (they were abolished some years ago in response to a legal case), officers who already worked for Moberly PD but lived out of town also receive a smaller housing allowance. The gesture toward fairness kept morale intact and retention steady. As another benefit, housing allowances are not considered income. They are therefore not taxable and impose no long-term burden on the town for retirement costs.
Further north, Watford City, North Dakota, is an oil town an hour from the nearest Walmart, which had a housing crisis back in the early 2000s, too. As the town’s growth exploded with demand for fuel, the little city upended the caricature of small towns forever chasing change by seeing it coming and getting ahead of it instead.
The oil industry is known for raining money when business is good, but also for attracting droves of transient workers looking for a big payday, and for extreme commutes. No one, especially police officers, wants their families in a remote town with few resources and no safe place to live. So, Watford City smoothed out the boom-and-bust cycle of its resource economy by heavily leveraging grants and low-interest loans. These were used to develop the infrastructure it takes to attract not just single, young-ish oil workers living in company trailers, but also qualified teachers, healthcare workers, police officers and their families.
“Without families, workers have no support systems, no guard rails,” said Watford City PIO Sergeant Jeffrey Jensen. “And then crime goes up. So, the city invested heavily to get accurate census numbers needed to be eligible for loan and grant applications. They even used data from the water and sewer systems to get accurate estimates.”
As the town’s growth soared from 1,200 in the early 2000s to more than 12,000, what was once a housing crisis became a recruiting tool for the police department. New nonprofits accessed funding to build safe, comfortable multi-family housing for public employees, along with a childcare facility close nearby. Schools and sports facilities have been improved to accommodate the growth. Occupancy in the apartments fell as demand for oil decreased during the pandemic, but now it is back near full capacity. The plan isn’t perfect, but it’s working.
“Watford City has one of the best school systems in western North Dakota now, and our department pushes the family aspect of all this development when we’re recruiting,” Jensen said. “With improved infrastructure, there’s an opportunity for spouses. There are rural development loans accessible for home purchases. And we still do traffic enforcement and Broken Windows policing here.”
One of the persistent stereotypes of rural and remote places is that, although the pay may be lower, so is the cost of living. However, rural and remote can often mean near a coastline (see also, beach houses), or near a national park (publicly owned land unavailable for development), or near a ski resort (second homes and competition with wealthy buyers). Rolling farmland with inexpensive houses exists, but it can come with pay scales so low that a mortgage, or even rent, is out of reach. It’s frustrating, and it can be infuriating when a sheriff trying to fill vacant positions is told by budget bosses that a pretty view should be enough. The glamor of an exotic work environment won’t pay the bills or build new houses.
There may be a (little) help on the way. A bipartisan bill called the HELPER Act has been proposed that would create low-interest, no-down mortgage loans modeled after the highly successful VA loan program. It would be available for first responders, teachers and some healthcare workers.
Knowing there are elected officials who have noticed the problem and are at least trying to help makes a difference; it won’t fix everything, but something is always better than nothing. Local governments can make a difference by being innovative and flexible as they work toward solutions. Doing what’s always been done doesn’t work, and it’s no longer an option.
In the meantime, officers and their families will continue to adjust their career decisions to work around the housing shortages, and department heads will have to keep scrambling to fill positions and hold on to experienced staff. The main lesson here is that the asset that matters isn’t housing inventory: it’s people.