Affordable Housing Tough to Find in Sioux Falls

November 14, 2013

Published in The Argus Leader on Nov 8, 2013

Written by: J.L. Atyeo

A lack of apartment housing in Sioux Falls has raised rents, and the waiting list for subsidized housing stretches so long that people wait four and a half years for their names to come up.

Those are just some of the issues surrounding affordable housing discussed by about 90 public officials and representatives from programs serving those in need who gathered Thursday at the Falls Overlook Café.

"I believe that everyone deserves a place to call home," said Shireen Ranschau, executive director of the Sioux Falls Housing and Redevelopment Commission and Affordable Housing Solutions. "We need to increase the stock of housing that will meet the needs of these people."

Sioux Falls has a low vacancy rate for rentals. At the beginning of the year, 4.2 percent were vacant, and that number hasn't budged in spite of many new apartment projects.

Rent typically should not cost more than 30 percent of a person's monthly paycheck. The average two-bedroom apartment in Sioux Falls costs $760 per month. To keep with the standard, a person would have to make at least $14.61 per hour.

Ranschau listed the jobs held by those on their waiting list, and they were all below that pay scale. There were food service workers making $7 per hour, manufacturers making $8.25, construction workers earning $9.

"These are all jobs that are important to our community, and these are all people that are struggling to find (homes)," she said.

Pat Humphrey is one of the newest residents at the City Center apartments downtown. The Good Samaritan Society opened the apartments for seniors at the end of summer.

Humphrey, 71, retired from her work as a respiratory therapist in Aberdeen and moved to Sioux Falls eight years ago to be close to family.

When she heard about the City Center project, she put her name on the list. Her new place is an upgrade from her old apartment in town. She now has two bedrooms so her eight grandkids could spend the night once in a while.

The rent is about the same. She gets some assistance through Sioux Falls Housing. Her income is limited, drawing Social Security.

Directly below her, Grace MacArthur lives on the second floor. The 89-year-old finds that rent is comparable to the last place she lived, but she likes the amenities more.

“I really think I’m doing better here,” she said.

Rents at City Center range from $517 to $661 for a one-bedroom or $620 to $792 for two. That includes utilities.

Just seven of the 44 units are full now, but once all the paperwork is processed for the other applicants, the building will be about half-full. The Good Samaritan’s other affordable housing projects, in southwest Sioux Falls, are full.

Affordable housing is a challenge that will never go away, said Carol Muller, director of Minnehaha County Human Services. She said nonprofits and government agencies such as hers need to be creative to find ways to make housing affordable.

Her department gets an average 5,000 requests for assistance each year. This fall, the largest came from a family of 23 people. That one stumped caseworkers.

“It’s a struggle,” Muller said.

Finding a place for larger families is always a challenge, and the cost of larger apartments has risen sharply in the past two years. The average rent for a four-bedroom apartment went up by $290.

To receive assistance through Human Services, clients must be at the poverty level. That means making less than $11,490 per year for a single person or $23,500 for a family of four.

Muller said, despite stereotypes, 70 percent of the people her department serves have jobs.

“I truly believe that people want to pay their own rent. … They want that dignity,” she said.

Thursday’s event was meant to generate ideas and encourage creative solutions

“It’s that kind of collaboration that’s amazing,” said Michelle Erpenbach, city councilor and member of the homeless advisory board.

“I want to come out feeling able to do something about it.”

The resources are out there, she said. Thursday’s panel was an effort to find how they can best be put to use without competing or duplicating services.

The city is contributing a half-million dollars from its general fund for affordable housing projects next year. That will be available as low-interest loans to developers building new affordable housing units or rehabilitating other buildings for affordable housing.

The city and its partners have a few housing projects underway. An 11-plex is set to open soon on Summit Avenue. Another will have five units for seniors. Site work started on a four-plex, and next year a three-bedroom duplex is planned.

“It’s a small bite, but you’ve got to start somewhere,” community development director Darrin Smith said.

Affordable housing means stability, and that’s especially important for families with kids.

Children in stressful circumstances find it harder to concentrate, said Celeste Uthe-Burrow, student support services coordinator for the Sioux Falls School District. Kids fall behind when a family moves and they start at a new school, she said. Keeping them up to speed is crucial, she said, because education is key to getting out of poverty.

The district has programs that help provide transportation to keep kids at their familiar schools when possible.

Fundraising for housing

Habitat for Humanity has about 100 applicants each year, but it’s only able to build 10 houses each year.

A new fundraising campaign that launched this week hopes to increase that to 15.

The Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce Community Appeals drive seeks to raise $1.4 million. Part of that will build a warehouse where volunteers can work on houses year-round.

The rest will go toward doubling the size of Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore, which sells used building supplies and helps fund Habitat’s building projects.

Fundraising will go on though April 1, and the goal is to build next summer.

Executive director Sue Olsen said Habitat for Humanity wants to grow because the demand for housing has increased.

The homes cost between $110,000 and $140,000 to build, which the homeowner pays back through a no-interest mortgage. In place of the down payment, owners are required to put time in building the house and taking classes on home ownership.

That makes it affordable, Olsen said, but, she added, home ownership is only part of the affordable housing picture.

“Not everybody wants to own a house, but everybody wants to have an affordable, decent and safe place to live,” she said.