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Business & Economics

New programs address Rapid City's affordable housing crisis

 Leanne Aldous and her son Ethan
Arielle Zionts
Leanne Aldous and her son Ethan

The housing affordability crisis often focuses on people who earn low wages or can't work at all.

In the Rapid City area, the affordable housing challenge goes beyond that, affecting people earning up to $50,000 a year. In fact, the overall housing shortage impacts even people who make more than that.

Now, the local community, government and private sector are starting to address the crisis.

The Black Hills Area Community Foundation is raising millions to provide low-interest loans for developers to build affordable housing. Meanwhile, Monument Health, the largest employer in the region, is renting apartments for new hires who can't find anywhere to live, regardless of the cost.

"Everyone is complaining about the same things, you can't afford to live here in Rapid, you just can't," said Leanne Aldous, a single mother of four. "A lot of my friends are married so they have dual income so it's a little bit easier but they still struggle. Myself and my friends, I know we utilize the food bank a lot, thank God for that option. But you have to have two incomes just to barely make ends meet right now."

The Rapid City area is in need of thousands of more affordable units, according to a study by Benchmark Data Labs. The data is from 2018 and experts say the problem has increased since then. The housing shortage will only get worse as more people move to the area for the outdoors lifestyle and arrival of the B-21 bomber at Ellsworth Air Force Base.

The average price of rent in the Rapid City area has increased more in the past 12 months than in the past five years combined, according to Garth Wadsworth of Elevate Rapid City. It increased by 9% from September 2020 to September 2021 after increasing by 7.1% from 2016 through 2020.

“Wages have gone up but nowhere near at the same rate as rent has," Wadsworth said.

He said half of renters in the area now pay higher rates than they should. Affordable housing is defined as spending 30% or less of pre-tax income on housing and utilities.

Aldous falls into the half that pays more than 30%.

She sat inside her Box Elder living room as her son played with toys and her mini-Australian shepherd ran laps around the house. Aldous explained that she has a college degree and is a financial coordinator for a Rapid City dentist.

She earns $17 an hour, or about $35,360 pre-tax year to support herself, her two youngest children and their dog. Aldous was living in Rapid Valley with her children and ex-husband when she needed to move after a domestic violence incident in November 2020.

For Aldous, an affordable unit would cost $884 a month. But she knew that wouldn't be possible.

The average rent for just a one-bedroom apartment in the Rapid City area is approaching $1,000 a month, according to Wadsworth.

Aldous was willing to give up a dishwasher and laundry machines but wanted a three-bedroom apartment since she didn't want her daughter and son — who are 11 years apart — to share a room. She makes too much for government-subsidized housing and set her sights on an apartment that costs $1,200 or less a month.

The best option was a triplex in Box Elder that rents for $1,280 a month. That means Aldous spends 43% of her income on rent.

 Leanne Aldous's home in Box Elder
Arielle Zionts
Leanne Aldous's home in Box Elder

Commuting from Box Elder now costs Aldous about $500 a month for gas.

"Right now we've cut out anything fun," said Aldous, who also forgoes health insurance for herself. "We don't eat out, we don't go out and do things. I literally go work, pick him up, and we come home. We don't buy any of the extras."

The Black Hills Community Area Foundation is trying to create more housing for people like Aldous.

“If you are spending too much on housing it means that you have to cut back on other things in your life," said the foundation's CEO Liz Hamburg. "Food, childcare, whatever it might be. If your car breaks down, you’re really in trouble."

The foundation's Strategic Housing Trust Fund will target individuals and families who earn between $20,000 and $50,000 a year.

"The hairdresser and the waiter, the bartender, the first-year teacher, the people that you see everyday are the people that we’re trying to help," Hamburg said. "They’re working and they deserve to pay less than a maximum for their housing.”

The fund will provide low interest — 1.5%-2% — loans to developers who build housing and promise to keep the rent affordable for a long period of time, Hamburg said. The loans could also be used to renovate affordable but poor quality housing.

The group has raised $2.5 million and the John T. Vucurevich Foundation recently said it will match up to $5 million. It's asking for money from Pennington County and $7 million from Rapid City.

Liz Hamburg, center, celebrates a $5 million donation for its housing trust
Black Hills Area Community Foundation
Liz Hamburg, center, celebrates a $5 million donation for its housing trust

The foundation plans to ask the Legislature for three times the amount it raises, Hamburg said. She also anticipates funding from the budget surplus or federal infrastructure programs.

Hamburg said the foundation's model — which includes a local advisory group responsible for approving loans — allows for more creative housing projects that are built faster than those overseen by government-run programs.

“Because it’s at the community foundation and not tied to federal or state regulations, it’s going to be flexible," she said.

Government-run housing programs often have strict qualifications for developers and tenants, and the pace of development can be slower due to a variety of requirements.

The trust fund gave its first loan to Common Bond, a regional nonprofit planning to build a 42-unit, mixed-income apartment east of downtown Rapid City. The building will be unique: Rent will be adjusted to reflect 30% of tenants' income and renters will have access to on-site resources.

Monument Health started leasing rental property when it became a recruiting issue for health care professionals, especially nurses.

“Our recruitment team started to hear more and more from candidates who wanted to accept positions but would be relocating to Rapid City and they were struggling to find housing," said Elle Larsen, director of real estate for the health care system. "Some candidates were even turning down positions because they couldn’t find a place to live or even find temporary housing while they looked for permanent solutions.”

Larsen said the complaints ramped up this spring so Monument rented 12 units for temporary housing for new employees. It plans to add 10 more units in March.

Elle Larsen, real estate manager at Monument Health
Monument Health
Elle Larsen, real estate manager at Monument Health

The complaints are about the overall housing shortage, Larsen said. Even if nurses can afford higher rents, many apartments have 90-day waitlists.

She said another common complaint is about the lack of units that allow pets. Many rentals ban pets, only allow animals under a certain weight, or charge monthly pet rent on top of a refundable pet deposit.

Aldous, the single mother, is looking for a new place to live since her rent is increasing next year. And again, she's having trouble finding options within her budget.

She's considered taking on a part-time job, but that means paying for more childcare, which already costs about $400 a month. She would like to own a house but has trouble saving for a down payment.

Aldous is also considering moving to Missouri, where her parents live and rent is cheaper.

"It's so frustrating, because what else can we do?" she said.