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Southwest Louisiana ,
Research Director Daphne Richard; David Conner, vice president of economic development & international commerce; and Morgan Murray, housing grant administrator, make up the Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance. (Rita LeBleu / American Press)

Research Director Daphne Richard; David Conner, vice president of economic development & international commerce; and Morgan Murray, housing grant administrator, make up the Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance. (Rita LeBleu / American Press)

Alliance gathering data on housing market

Last Modified: Wednesday, May 14, 2014 5:34 PM

By Rita LeBleu / American Press

When it comes to how new industry and more job opportunities ­—permanent and temporary—will affect housing in the area, David Conner, Daphne Richard and Morgan Murray of the Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance are putting together numbers that hit home.

Conner is the VP of Economic Development and International Commerce, Richard is Research Director, and Murray is the Housing Grant Administrator.

“You’ve probably seen some of the job projections,” Conner said. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

The group also collects information specific to the housing market like the number and type of housing units available in the five-parish area, such as single or multi-family, to-rent or to-own models, the availability of RV parks and mobile home communities, price ranges and timelines.

“The public should start to see a comprehensive, robust regional impact housing study this summer,” Conner said.

The goal is to provide good information and professional analysis so that local governments, investors, developers and builders can make decisions that work not just for today, but for the long term…to help the market understand when to slow down so that supply doesn’t exceed demand.

“What we don’t want to happen is for our local investors, developers and builders to have to play catch up and get caught after the bubble,” Conner said. “We want the region to be ready and we want to help people get their hands on the information they need to make informed decisions.” The study will be available on The Alliance website.

The results will be valuable not only for market and planning experts but can also help industry recruiting efforts.

“Successful recruiting is not just about the job, the salary and the work,” Conner explained. “Potential job candidates ask questions like, Where will my family live? What’s the quality of life like there?” Though Conner said that it would be great if every opening could filled with someone local, with the amount of jobs and type of jobs anticipated, that’s not feasible.

Conner’s experience with housing started before he began his work with The Alliance as a federal government housing expert. It was after Hurricane Rita. Homes had been destroyed. Temporary FEMA workers and construction workers needed housing. Coming up with how to build more resilient housing was also paramount.

“After I left FEMA , I came to work at The Alliance. I had already been doing housing so it was a good fit for me. We needed someone to “pick up the bucket of water” and go with it, just take on what needed to be taken on,” he said.

The Alliance obtained funding from the Disaster Recovery Unit of the State of Louisiana to start its comprehensive approach to housing that would create a resource accessible to the five-parish area.

But the scope of that responsibility evolved, moving beyond the need to determine how to implement more resilient housing.

“Late 2011 and ’12, these industrial projects started hitting, big jobs with large numbers. It made sense for The Alliance to deal with the housing strategy to satisfy workforce needs.” Conner said.

Data was collected from census studies, tax assessors offices, permitting offices, planning officials, from people with access to information like parish and municipal leaders, Conner explained.

“As we started to move into that second phase of building the plan, we beefed up our committee to include the local board of realtors, housing authorities, apartment managers, the Louisiana housing commission and the National Association of Home Builders, bankers, developers and representatives from the big industrial developments,” Conner said.

Conner said that some of the new industry groups were planning to do their own housing studies but a comprehensive approach made more sense and will benefit a greater number of people.

“While we’re doing housing, the GO Group’s Regional Impact Study is happening at the same time,” Conner said.

The projected housing demand is based on information gathered from companies about workforce needs and how those figures impact permanent direct jobs, permanent indirect jobs and permanent induced jobs.

New industries’ temporary job projections affect housing too. “We’re doing everything we can to get our local workers prepared so that they can have as many of the new jobs, but there aren’t enough people who live in the five parishes to build what’s coming,” Conner said. “This construction isn’t going to happen using our local population alone.”

It’s the consensus of Conner, Richard and Murray that worker villages are a viable option to house the 16,000 workers needed to build new plants.

Housing Grant Administrator Morgan Murray said that depending on apartments to house temporary workers isn’t feasible. Apartment occupancy “shows at 95%,” she said.

Hotels aren’t really an option either, according to The Alliance housing team. These rooms fulfill a projected tourism need. “If temporary workers are in hotel rooms, where will people stay that come here to fish and hunt, to enjoy the cultural events particular to our region, to play ball or watch their kids play ball in upcoming regional and state tournaments,” Richard said.

Conner said that perhaps the question shouldn’t be, why worker villages, but what will our community be like if we don’t build temporary worker housing.

“Imagine 16,000 workers. Do you want them in several thousand or 400 buses?” he said. Consider what would happen if temporary workers with good per diems drive up apartment rent? Something not even on this scale happened in Montana and people ended up living in cars,” he added.

“But it’s not up for us to decide, it’s for the market to decide,” Conner said. Just as industrial companies come to us and say, what about land, incentives and infrastructure, it’s the same thing with employee village builders, single- and multi-family dwelling builders and other land developers.

We’re working to pull together the information they need, he explained. “We’re here to assist companies of all sizes, from the mega industries to the snow cone stand operators,” he added.

According to Conner, builders and developers have been making these kinds of decisions for years. They’ve been building, day in and day out, year after year in an economy that expands and contracts in a normal cycle – but this isn’t normal.

The Alliance team serves the five parish region of Allen, Beauregard, Calcasieu, Cameron and Jefferson Davis, and is led by President and CEO, George Swift.

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