Home Sweet Home

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Since January, we’ve dedicated one story in every issue of Aberdeen Magazine toward big topics on our minds as we start a new decade. Our strengths and weaknesses. Addiction. Transportation. Business. In this issue, we’re continuing our Aberdeen: Version 2020 series with housing. What challenges are we up against to create housing in Aberdeen, and how are we facing them?

Why Housing Matters to You

Aberdeen is a great place to live and work. Have you ever heard someone say that? Maybe you’ve said it yourself. Especially at the Thanksgiving table, when your cousin, who lives far away, questions why you settled in Middle-of- Nowhereville, South Dakota. Let’s focus on the first part. Aberdeen is a great place to live. There are a million specific reasons why that’s true for you, but in this story, we’re unpacking what it’s like to literally have a home in Aberdeen right now. Whether you rent or buy, housing connects us all. If we fail at housing, we fail everywhere. People can’t put down roots and pour themselves into a community without first having a place that feels like home within city limits. When you make your home somewhere, that’s where you work, shop, send your kids to school, and volunteer. All of this is good for Aberdeen. Maybe that’s why we have so many great organizations in town making sure we get it right. But having a home is complicated. There are costs and floodplains. There are families with specific requirements and seniors with an entirely different set of needs.

To break it all down, here are five key things you need to know about housing in the Hub City.

1. Aberdeen is Growing

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HAPI Executive Director Jeff Mitchell and Home Ownership Coordinator Rachel Dix stand next to the map at the HAPI 1st North Subdivision. A few lots have either been sold or are pending sale, but plenty of lots are still available.

This isn’t new. We have a steady history of population growth. Over the past decade, about 300 new residents have made Aberdeen their home every year. That’s a yearly increase of at least 140 new households. To keep up with our projected growth, Aberdeen will need to add about 170 housing units every year. This includes homes and rentals (Aberdeen Housing Study, 2018). Even as we navigate COVID-19, the demand for housing is expected to remain constant.

When people move to town, if they rent, they’re likely choosing from apartments. According to Eric Vetter with RentAberdeen.com, “There are many apartments for rent in Aberdeen compared to three to five years ago and a lot more for people to pick and choose from. One thing contributing to this is the increase in apartments that have been built in town.” He says between 65 and 110 people visit his website every day, all of whom are looking for rentals in Aberdeen. Homes for rent are popular, but they are few and far between compared to apartments. And cost is a factor. Renting a home is usually close to, or more than, $1,000 per month plus utilities. The average monthly rent in town is about $600. Still, “There is definitely room for more homes to rent,” Eric said.

For newcomers wishing to buy, Aberdeen has choices in a variety of price points. Homes Are Possible, Inc (HAPI) has worked tirelessly to construct single-family homes in Aberdeen and provide homebuyer education and assistance. They are now working on their largest subdivision yet (located just north of Holgate) out of the dozen they’ve done so far. The nonprofit isn’t stopping there. They’ve also purchased two additional plots of land north and east of this subdivision, both for home development.

With growth comes new construction, and we need that for our aging homes in Aberdeen. About 54% of our housing was constructed in 1969 or before. This is well above the national average of about 38%. Many of our older homes have been well-kept, but we also have many in need of repair (Aberdeen Growth & Comprehensive Plan, 2018).

2. Senior and Family Housing are Must-Haves

Aberdeen’s aging population is also growing. As of 2018, 45% of all Aberdeen households were headed by a person 55 and older (Aberdeen Housing Study, 2018). Meanwhile, the median age in town is about 35. What does this mean? Senior and family housing should be on our radar. Both populations look for safe neighborhoods with the small-town feel Aberdeen is known for. Families want a yard and space for their kids to play, while seniors may be looking for less property maintenance.

“We’re seeing developments with townhouse-style rentals starting up for this senior population,” explains Brett Bill, city planning & zoning director. Jeff Mitchell, executive director with HAPI, acknowledges they put up houses specifically with this population in mind. For example, they recently added a few smaller, two-bedroom, one-bathroom homes with no steps and an attached garage.

3. There is a Disconnect Between Income and Housing Costs

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Jody Zueger is the executive director of the Aberdeen Housing Authority. The Aberdeen Housing Authority helps with rent assistance for low income families across Aberdeen.

How can a two-income household not earn enough to pay for housing? It’s not that people aren’t trying. It’s that incomes aren’t meeting the costs of living. In Aberdeen, 26% of all residents are considered cost-burdened by housing, meaning more than 30% of their income goes toward their rent or mortgage. Of these, 43% are renters, and 15% are homeowners (Aberdeen Growth & Comprehensive Plan, 2018). Imagine getting two paychecks every month. The first is enough for your rent. The second is enough for daycare, groceries, and maybe a car payment. You don’t have anything left for savings, and you are one disaster away from a financial crisis.

“We can have a double-income household, with both parents working in retail or the service industry and with two kids, and they qualify for housing assistance,” said Jody Zueger, executive director of the Aberdeen Housing Authority. The Housing Authority is a rental property management company that solely handles income-based rentals. Currently, they have 379 rental units in town. They also administer the Section 8 voucher program for five counties in and around Aberdeen to help families pay a portion of their rent based on income. Through this program, they serve about 400 people and have a waiting list of about 300. Job loss and reduced employment due to COVID-19 have played a large role in the increase in need for housing assistance. Jody said, “The majority of people on our program are in the service industry or working retail. These people are the backbone of the community. If they weren’t doing these jobs, Aberdeen wouldn’t survive.”

Jody said, “The people you see working around town as you run your errands aren’t able to afford rentals priced at $800-$1,000 a month.

That’s not to say those apartments aren’t worth that. It’s just that there may be a disconnect between rent and what people make an hour.” Statistics back this up. The median household income in Aberdeen is $47,290. That’s below the rest of Brown County ($53,073) and the state ($52,078). According to the city’s 2018 Growth & Comprehensive Plan, “The median family income has grown since 2010; however, the rate of income growth is trailing the rate of inflation.”

This is not exclusive to Aberdeen. Jeff says the cost of materials somewhat causes the cost of housing to grow faster than the income of buyers and renters. Most raw materials used in housing are not manufactured locally. “Every time we go out for contracts to build houses, material costs go up a little bit here and a little bit there. If incomes do not rise with it, the risk is pricing people out of the market. That’s one of the reasons why we try to offer several styles and price points on our houses, so more people can potentially afford them.”

4. Our Natural Barriers Pose Difficulties

Plenty of open land surrounds Aberdeen, but that doesn’t automatically mean we have space to expand housing. In fact, finding developable ground is one of our biggest hurdles. It’s no secret we have a lot of floodplains and wetlands in and around the city. Along with this, we frequently run into soil conditions that are poor for construction. It’s also tricky to get infrastructure, like sewer and water, to new developments in these kinds of situations.

So how can we overcome our natural barriers? Maybe with money, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. “It makes it so cost-prohibitive for anyone to develop when they have floodplains,” Brett said. Even so, the city’s growth plan has mapped out specific areas favorable to future residential neighborhoods within the next 25 years.

Replacing old homes with new ones is another solution. Brett gives credit to HAPI for helping immensely with the city’s in-fill housing. “If a dilapidated structure is torn down, HAPI has been great in buying that property and putting a new house on it.”

Along with natural barriers, we have some that are man-made. You can’t plop a residential area next to a railroad track, stockyard, or factory, for example.

5. We Have Challenges, but We Also Have Resources

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Brett Bill (right) is the City Planning & Zoning Director. Next to him is Building Inspector Barry Dunlavy. The Planning and Zoning Department does a lot, but in regard to housing, this department looks at past and future housing and land trends in Aberdeen.

When discussing what Aberdeen does well in terms of housing, one word always comes up: HAPI. Brett explains, “HAPI has helped us increase our housing inventory to a great extent. Without them being here, our housing would not have grown as it has.” Other communities are even taking notes and trying to replicate what this nonprofit is doing within their own cities too.

Jody also acknowledges the city for the work they do in making housing growth possible. “When we were putting up our properties, we had to go through the city, and they were very, very supportive of what we were doing.” The city ensures that all property is appropriately zoned, and that infrastructure is subbed out to areas that could be developed. This way, if the infrastructure is already in place adjacent to a developable piece of land, it helps reduce some of those building costs.

Along with HAPI and the Aberdeen Housing Authority, many other organizations in town try to break through the housing barriers. Whether that’s helping with utility bills or security deposits or providing homebuyer education, we have people working toward making sure everyone can have a steady roof for their family. Jeff said, “If you’re buying a home, do your homework. Go to a free homebuyer’s ed class and find out what’s available for assistance programs and see if you qualify. There are resources here if you want to own a home, so take advantage of them. You are not on your own.”

At the beginning of this story, we talked about how good it is for Aberdeen when we have more people wanting to make a life here. In truth, the future of Aberdeen’s housing largely depends on those of you who already call the city home. There is one super important thing anyone reading this can do to help housing flourish:

“Continue to shop and buy local,” Brett explained. “This creates jobs in those stores, which translates into a need for more housing. New construction then means jobs for so many others. Plumbers. Developers. Electricians. It keeps the economy rolling for everybody.” // –Jenny Roth and photos by Troy McQuillen and Stephanie Ludens

For information on HAPI, visit homesarepossible.org. To learn more about the Aberdeen Housing Authority, go to aberdeenhousing.com. The 2018 Housing Study and Growth & Comprehensive Plan are available at aberdeen.sd.us.

Featured Image: HAPI’s new 1st North Subdivision is under development. The subdivision is located north of Holgate Middle School, and several houses are for sale. Each house has an open floor plan and plenty of space for every growing family. The upper floor is finished, and the lower level is left as an unfinished utility room.