Steadily rising rents in South Dakota are adding further financial hardship to tenants who are already facing record high gas prices, rising food and utility costs, and inflationary increases in the cost of overall life.

Rising rents force some potential tenants to make difficult choices, such as taking roommates, living longer with relatives or accepting housing in worse conditions or less space than expected.

Urban areas in South Dakota are seeing the highest rent increases. The average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in Pennington County has increased by 15% from 2020 to 2022, and the monthly cost has increased by 10% for tenants in Meade, Minnehaha and Union counties during this period two years. Several counties in South Dakota are near or above $1,000 per month in average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment.

A construction worker checks the framing of a new townhouse being built in southeast Sioux Falls. Apartment construction is proceeding at a feverish pace in both South Dakota metropolitan areas.

Stu Whitney, South Dakota News Watcher

Rural areas of South Dakota have seen smaller increases in average rents, but rental housing availability is low in many small towns and cities.

Rising housing costs come at a time when more people are looking to relocate, including post-pandemic life changers, recent high school or college graduates, or those looking for a new accommodation during the summer months.

Meanwhile, as has long been the case in South Dakota, there is a growing mismatch between average wages and rising rent and overall cost of living. The spike in rents also comes as rental housing availability is low across the state, posing an additional challenge for those in need of housing.

In the Midwest, monthly housing rates have increased by about 4.8% since April 2021. In April 2022, the average rent for a two-bedroom unit in South Dakota was about $750 per month, according to World Population Review. Meanwhile, the minimum wage has only increased by $1.30 an hour over the past four years, although a labor shortage has prompted many employers to pay well above the minimum wage so far in 2022.

The housing market in the United States has become extremely competitive and expensive, pushing away many first-time home buyers and adding pressure to the rental market.

According to Zillow.com, mortgage rates and interest rates have made homes 53% more expensive than a year ago. The National Association of Realtors saw the average home price increase by 17% in 2021.

The median list price for new homes in the Sioux Falls metro area was $295,000 in April, according to Realtor.com, a 16% increase from 2021, while the median list price for homes in Rapid City exceeds Sioux Falls at $329,000, a 20% increase over 2021.

Soaring home purchase prices have pushed approximately one million potential buyers into the competitive rental market.

The explosion of potential new tenants is also reducing the availability of quality, affordable housing in urban and rural areas of South Dakota.

Tillie Morrin, 19, spent most of a recent day driving around Rapid City with her fiancée and a friend trying to find an available 2 or 3 bedroom apartment they could afford.

Morrin and his roommates were trying to land an apartment for $1,000 or less a month.

“The hardest part is availability,” said Morrin, who works as a storekeeper at Walmart.

The group found a 2-bedroom apartment available for $1,200 a month, but kept looking

In parts of South Dakota, more renters than ever are taking advantage of government assistance programs.

Grow South Dakota, an agency that helps low-income residents in a 17-county region of northeastern South Dakota, has seen an “astronomical” increase in financial assistance provided to renters in need, said Maureen Nelson, Senior Program Manager at Grow.

During the seven-month period from Oct. 1, 2021 to April 30, 2022, Grow provided about $975,000 in assistance to 930 people in about 350 households, Nelson said. Most of that funding was for rent assistance and utilities, she said.

Before the 2020 pandemic, the Sisseton-based agency only provided about $30,000 a year in total aid, Nelson said.

The huge increase is due to a higher need for aid, greater availability of federal aid and stronger “word of mouth” communication among those who are potentially eligible, Nelson said. However, anyone receiving assistance must still meet federal low-income guidelines before receiving any money.

A recent challenge facing renters is that many other living costs have gone up, including gas, grocery and utility costs, Nelson said.

“They need more help with rent because everything else is going up in all areas,” she said.

Additionally, many rural areas of South Dakota are suffering from an overall housing shortage, especially for families, Nelson said.

“There may be job openings for people to come to a city, but they struggle to find rentals that fit their family size,” she said.

Nelson said landlords have also struggled financially during the pandemic, including those who have been unable to evict non-paying tenants due to a federal moratorium on evictions, which has now expired. Homeowners also bear much higher costs for goods, services and mortgage payments, Nelson said.

“I think it’s been difficult for the owners,” Nelson said. “If you haven’t had income for six months, that makes a huge difference in their cash flow.”

Nelson said some landlords are responding by being more rigorous in screening potential tenants, which poses additional challenges for people looking for rental accommodation.

Dustin Hoffman owns a construction company in Sioux Falls, but also manages 17 rental properties in the city, mostly for low-income tenants. Its 2-bedroom apartments cost around $900 a month, an increase of nearly 40% from two years ago.

“When you consider taxes, insurance, gas bills, everything goes up,” Hoffman said. “We were forced to increase our rates to get back to where we were before the pandemic.”

Yet even with higher rents, housing demand remains high, he said.

“The problem of many [tenants] have is that they pay high prices for gas, groceries and everything else,” Hoffman said. “So the question is do they make more money on their salary to accommodate that. Most of the time they don’t.

Meanwhile, wages in South Dakota are falling even further behind rising rents and a higher cost of living.

In 2021, the National Low Income Housing Coalition reported that the average tenant wage in South Dakota was $13.15 per hour, or about $27,400 per year. At this salary, the monthly rent must be equal to or less than $684 to be considered affordable, or less than 30% of the tenant’s monthly income.

– South Dakota News Watch reporters Bart Pfankuch and Stu Whitney contributed to this report. News Watch is an online nonprofit news organization at sdnewswatch.org.