Housing construction across region rebounding

John R. Pullliam

 A 10-year look at new housing construction across 25 western and central Illinois cities finds growth returning in the greater Peoria area. Recovery from the recession, however, is coming more slowly for rural cities and villages, or not at all.

Sixteen of the 25 cities surveyed in this GateHouse Media’s Western Illinois Division project showed an increase in housing construction permits from 2011-2012. Nearly half of those are in the metro Peoria area. All five cities showing a decrease for that same period are in the rural communities.

City officials in Washington credit Peoria’s economic vitality for their city’s bounce back.

“There’s the close proximity to Peoria,” said Washington City Administrator Timothy Gleason. “You hop on (U.S.) 24 and you are 10 minutes from downtown Peoria.”

But, even in Washington, only 33 permits were issued in 2011, compared to a high-water mark of 309 in 2005. Morton, another growing Tazewell County city, had only 33 building permits in 2009. There were only 29 in 2009 in Germantown Hills. Morton and Washington, in particular, have come back strong.

From 2007-2011, there were a total of 14 residential building permits issued in Galesburg, many of them Habitat for Humanity houses. Canton has only issued nine permits over the past three years, with just five in Kewanee over the same period of time.

Nearly all the cities surveyed suffered a slowdown in new residential construction during or following the recession, which began slowing construction by 2009. Since 2003, 20 of the 25 cities showed their fewest housing construction permits in either 2010 or 2011.

But by 2012 more building was taking place. The total number of permits in the 25 cities grew from a low point of 219 permits in 2011 to more than double, 440, in 2012. It’s a tale of the city vs. the country, however, as the seven metro Peoria cities are responsible for 77 percent of those 2012 permits.

It would appear at first glance that Galesburg did well, but 20 of its 22 single-family permits were for eight-person group homes for St. Mary’s Square, moving developmentally disabled individuals from a large facility into the smaller homes scattered throughout Galesburg and Monmouth. Galesburg Economic Development Director Cesar Suarez agreed its the difference between metro and rural.

“We’re in a different market,” Suarez said. “The market dynamics are so different. You can’t expect to have a metropolitan market in a rural-sized community.”

There are other differences. Suarez and Galesburg Director of Community Development Roy Parkin said few local developers remain in Galesburg. The bad times and retirements have left few in the Knox County community. The major difference is while “spec” houses, those built on speculation that there will be a buyer, are built in Tazewell County, that rarely happens in Galesburg.

It’s been more than a decade since a single-family subdivision was built in Galesburg. Parkin said out-of-town developers want a subdivision to sell out in a year. He said that doesn’t happen here and developers lose interest. Plenty of developers help drive building in metro Peoria.

Meanwhile, even in East Peoria, with just 31 building permits in 2012, there’s reason for hope.

“I think we’re kind of skating along the bottom,” said Ty Livingston, East Peoria’s director of planning and community development. “One thing that hopefully shows there’s light at the end of the tunnel, even though we only had 31 permits, about half were spec homes.”

In Washington, with nearly 1,500 permits issued over the past decade, the future looks bright.

“Residentially, we have about 1,200 lots already platted,” said Mayor Gary Manier.

Macomb and Geneseo, relative bright spots in west-central Illinois over the past decade, show little signs of recovery. Macomb’s building permits dipped from seven in 2011 to six in 2012. In Geneseo, there was a dip from eight to seven. Not a huge drop, but few permits in the first place.

“I do think we’re going to have this kind of growth over the next five to 10 years,” Gleason said of Washington. “I think it’s coming.”

Even in East Peoria, though, there are signs growth may slow, as the city will soon be landlocked by its neighbors. In Galesburg, officials keep searching for answers. Not only did the recession hurt the city, Maytag and Butler Manufacturing picked up stakes early in the decade, in essence doubling the length of the recession in the Galesburg area.

“We have this strong history and culture,” Suarez said. “So, there’s always something that attracts somebody here. We have to find out what that is.”