Sept. 21—Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., introduced legislation on Wednesday that would open up new housing opportunities to help recruit and retain volunteer first responders across the state.
Heitkamp's so-called "Volunteer First Responder Housing Act" would attempt to incentivize more men and women to become volunteer first responders and to stay in their communities by purchasing a home to raise their families and grow their businesses. The bill would expand the eligibility requirements in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Single Family Housing Guaranteed Loan Program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Good Neighbor Next Door Program (GNNP).
Currently, the USDA Guaranteed Loan Program is only eligible to low and moderate-income rural Americans. The GNNP, which provides a discount of 50 percent from the list price of certain HUD homes, is only available to full-time firefighters, teachers, police officers, and first responders. Heitkamp's bill would lower the income requirements for first responders in the USDA Guaranteed Loan program by $18,000 and it would expand the eligibility requirements of the GNNP to include volunteer first responders.
"Making sure that our volunteer fire service has access to federal housing programs could go a long way in helping them secure homes but also in saying 'thank you' and encouraging people to volunteer," Heitkamp said in a phone interview on Wednesday.
According to the North Dakota Housing Association,"housing affordability will be an important component of continuing efforts to grow and diversify the state's economy," and is a "key consideration for attracting new residents and retaining young adults."
The bill is cosponsored by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and has received support from the National Volunteer Fire Council, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the North Dakota Firefighter's Association, the North Dakota Fire Chief's Association, the Housing Assistance Council and the National Rural Housing Coalition.
Dickinson fire chief Bob Sivak said about 96 percent of firefighters across North Dakota are volunteers, but noted it is becoming "more and more difficult" to attract and retain volunteer firefighters and first responders.
"It is a tremendous commitment of somebody's time and although in some cases there may be some incentives through pay or stipends, but in some cases there is nothing," Sivak said. "A bill like this is thinking outside the box. Incentive packages could be a real beneficial tool in attracting interesting people and attracting good candidates and keeping them. There's a lot of potential, I think, for the volunteer fire service in the state of North Dakota and across the nation with a bill like this."
Sivak said the number of volunteer firefighters has declined nationally by about 12 percent since 1984 while call volume for most departments has nearly tripled.
"Everybody is much busier today than they were before," he said. "You look at the involvement that young families have ... how communities have spread out and how communities have grown so that center core of a community is vastly different than it was 10 or 15 or 20 years ago."
Sivak said having people stay in communities and be an active part of the community is also very important and could be achieved with this bill.
"Not only does it help recruit and retain volunteer firefighters but it helps to settle them into the community if they're able to buy a home and put down roots," Sivak said. "... I think it could be a real building block."