RAPID CITY, S.D. — The dramatic housing crunch in the Black Hills over a year into a pandemic is often told as a success story, as realtors and elected leaders boast that out-of-state families have sought out relaxed COVID-19 strictures in the Rushmore State.
But on Wednesday, July 14 at a workforce housing summer legislative study committee, the tale was told through city planners, building code officials, and mayors, who are scrambling to equip communities with needed housing for newcomers and current residents alike.
Spearfish Mayor Dana Boke said hundreds of people are waiting for homes in the college and tourist town in the northern Hills where the average price for a single-family home has jumped from $280,000 to $372,000 in just a single year.
Down the interstate in Sturgis, S.D., where the eponymous motorcycle rally gets underway in a month's time, two recent city hires — including a policeman — are living in a basement, said city manager Daniel Ainslie. A third employee is renting an RV outside of town.
And at the air force base east of Rapid City, where a new bomber will bring more workers in the coming decade, airmen can't find privatized homes for months.
"Today, there are 116 airmen waiting for homes," said Lynn Kendall, community relations director for the Ellsworth Development Authority, who called the pinch at a "critical" point in the western region of South Dakota.
The summer study session comprising nearly 20 legislators, many political conservatives, had intended the meeting to identify cost generators, including unnecessary or burdensome housing codes — but on Wednesday, two city building officials, from Spearfish and another from Sioux Falls, suggested the codes provide only the most basic standard for energy efficiency and safety.
Plus, most housing contractors build more than the single bathroom and single bedroom required by municipal codes.
"If you build a house with the minimum code, it's not a very good house," said Tom Paisley, building official for Spearfish.
When Republican legislator from Spearfish, Rep. Scott Odenbach, suggested new building in Rapid City demonstrates that the "market is working," Rapid City's interim community development director Vicki Fischer said growth has outpaced expectations.
"We're still short on everything right now," said Fischer.
Of particular concern, as well, were out-of-state buyers who sell $800,000 homes in an urban area outside the Midwest and can easily drop half that price on a home, often driving up the price-point and pricing out locals, even seniors.
"Seniors are being taxed out of their homes," said Fischer.
The crunch on affordable housing is, of course, not merely a concern in western South Dakota. Vermillion Mayor Kelsey Collier-Wise told those gathered that her community, a college town in the state's southeastern corner within driving distance from both Sioux City, Iowa, and Sioux Falls has seen an increase in commuters.
"The number one reason they choose [to commute] is the lack of housing, the lack of affordable housing," said Collier-Wise.
Wednesday's meeting was the second gathering of the summer study committee. A budget for a third meeting has not yet been posted.