Iowa town is giving away free land to attract residents

MARNE, Iowa (AP) — Every single home matters in a community of 120 people.

Each house serves as a crucial piece of the local tax base, keeping the town from fading away.

That’s why people like Marne Mayor Randy Baxter have surgically removed the town’s dilapidated homes over the years.

That’s why the city will give away residential lots for free to anyone willing to build a new home.

And that’s why Baxter himself has refurbished older homes and plans to begin building homes speculatively at his own risk.

“I care about the town,” he told the Des Moines Register. “It gets to a point where it takes so many households to keep the lights on.”

The mayor is the city’s largest property owner. He estimates that he’s owned about a quarter of the town’s properties as he’s bought and sold homes, lots and commercial buildings over the years.

While he may have played an outsize role in Marne’s housing market, Baxter’s efforts represent a wider trend across Iowa: rural community leaders, struggling with aging housing stocks and little or no new construction, are taking a more active role in housing development.

Many have realized that developers will never show up to rebuild their inventories of houses and apartments without a push from the local community.

Marne, northwest of Atlantic in western Iowa, is so small that the list of residents fills only a page and a half in the local phone book. But Baxter firmly believes that the community needs more housing.

With the unemployment rate remaining low, a new ethanol plant coming on board a few miles away and a lack of housing , Baxter thinks that now is as good a time as any to double down on a new housing initiative.

So he plans to start building homes speculatively with his own capital, confident that there’s enough demand to sell them once they’re built. Even completing one new home every two years would be huge for the tiny town, he said.

“We’ve gotten rid of all the houses here that are not livable,” he said. “I think now’s a good time to start thinking about building new houses. We think if we build it, someone will eventually live in it.”

Baxter also leads Marne’s housing committee, which has offered the free residential lots.

The program is pretty simple: The lots go free to anyone willing to build a home that’s at least 1,200 square feet. No trailer homes are allowed, but modular homes are acceptable.

In the past decade, only one family has taken up the city’s offer, on a ranch home on a corner lot built several years ago.

The limited response has not met initial expectations.

“It has not been that successful,” 79-year-old Alan Cranston said. “Far, far short of it. But we’ve had a lot of calls on it. A lot of people are asking.”

Cranston, a retiree, described Marne’s current housing needs as “critical.”

“What’s available is not what people are looking for,” he said.

Still, the town has made huge strides with repairing its housing stock by tearing down dilapidated homes and repairing fixable ones.

Cranston credits the mayor for much of that progress.

“He’s been a big plus,” he said. “I don’t know where we would be without him, to tell you the truth.”

Cranston said he often spots Baxter working on other people’s properties around town. Not long ago, he saw him on his tractor leveling out a gravel road in need of repair.

“I don’t know if the man sleeps,” he said. “If you want to get something done in the community, your best chance is to ask the man that’s the busiest.”

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