Volunteers working to improve access to affordable housing to Burke as 'crisis is terrible'
The 775 Project initiative earns group Community Innovation Prize from Dakota Resources
BURKE — The local hospital in Burke has a new employee beginning work soon, and they need a place to live in town.
The problem is, like in so many other rural South Dakota communities, affordable housing is scarce in Burke. With a recent surge in interest from out-of-staters moving into the state, there is a lack of adequate housing for working and lower-income families.
The issue for some time has been the talk of realtors, builders and economic developers as well as lawmakers in Pierre , all who are seeking a solution to the issue.
“The (housing) crisis is terrible, and it’s difficult to quantify,” said Kelsea Kenzy Sutton, an attorney for First Fidelity Bank in Burke and one of the volunteers with The 775 Project, an ongoing initiative to improve access to affordable housing in town. “We did a community survey and 70% of respondents said that a lack of affordable housing is the No. 1 reason we can’t get people to expand services or provide new services. That’s the perception from the community.”
With large employers in the community like Community Memorial Hospital and the Burke School District , attracting skilled employees is essential to maintaining good services. And having available housing for those employees is crucial to drawing those employees to places like rural South Dakota in the first place.
Kenzy Sutton said for potential employers in Burke, that means having new employees put up in locations like old unused parsonages, or if the employee has family in the area, moving in with those relatives until a more permanent solution can be found.
It’s not ideal, she said.
“You talk to the hospital, and they say housing is the No. 1 obstacle to their worker shortage. (Some have taken up residence) in old parsonages, or we have professionals who are ready to move back home and they’ll move into a family members’ basement, but there are others who don’t have that option,” Kenzy Sutton said.
To address that shortage, Kenzy Sutton and a handful of other volunteers started The 775 Project, named after the 775 Burke phone prefix, to create a culture of housing development that changes the perception of the need for housing as a community problem that needs community solutions. So far, the project has managed to secure a lot in the community, cleared it of an old structure unusable for their needs and is now eyeing construction of a stick-built single-family home.
The core volunteer group worked to gain permission to tear down the dilapidated property on the lot before pursuing various partnerships and agreements to begin redevelopment on the lot, a major milestone for both the city of Burke and the Gregory County Development Corporation, she said.
To finance the building of a new home on the vacated lot, community leaders in Burke are applying for funding through the Housing Opportunity Fund Program with the South Dakota Housing Development Authority. The volunteers are also seeking funding through other small grants and industry partnerships, including one such agreement with the Burke Building Center .
Their efforts earned them the Community Innovation Prize from Dakota Resources , an organization that got its start in 1996 as South Dakota Rural Enterprise and the mission of which was to enhance the economic vitality of rural South Dakota communities. That mission continues under the Dakota Resources name.
The prize includes a $5,000 Dakota Resources Community Coach credit to be used in 2022 to empower the community however it chooses, according to a release from Dakota Resources.
One of the primary focuses of the project is to put the power of developing housing into the hands of the community instead of relying on outside developers to come in and build. Such developers can be difficult to attract to rural communities, but even small communities have the resources to take action themselves with some patience and persistence, Kenzy Sutton said.
“Everyone knows it's an issue and it’s a complicated issue, and that makes it tough to get started on things,” Kenzy Sutton said. “Housing is something developers do to make money, and developers aren’t coming to save us in Burke. We have to be the developers.”
It’s an approach that requires changing the perception of who can bring that kind of development to a community, she said. And if it can happen in Burke, it can happen in other communities like Burke.
“We want people and groups to start seeing themselves as housing developers making a bet on Burke being a place people want to live, rather than waiting for someone else to come up with a solution to our housing shortage,” Kenzy Sutton said.
It has taken a lot of work, and progress has been slower than the group would like. Early efforts were derailed by the 2019 tornado that swept through the city. Then in 2020, the arrival of COVID-19 further disrupted progress. But the group now has plans to build their first small new home, and they have a better grip on the process needed to acquire similar property for new construction.
The project is finding its footing and now has a clearer vision of how to move forward.
“ We want to create a model that can be recreated (by other communities).”
—Kelsea Kenzy Sutton, The 775 Project Volunteer
“We’d love to build a house a year or every 18 months in Burke. We’re working hard to keep them small - a house that someone may downsize into or grow out of as their family grows. We want to create a model that can be recreated (by other communities),” Kenzy Sutton said.
The prize from Dakota Resources is a nice acknowledgement of their work, she said, and the partnership has proven beneficial for Burke. And hopefully the project will inspire other communities to consider a similar approach to their own housing shortages.
“To us, the award shows people both inside and outside our community that we are making award-winning progress in solving our chronic affordable housing issue. And in working with Dakota Resources for a number of years, it is more clear than even before that Dakota Resources is wholeheartedly leading this cause for all the right reasons, and their contributions to our project are immeasurable. We are grateful for their work and friendship,” Kenzy Sutton said.
Paula Jensen, vice president of the program development and community coach for Dakota Resources, agreed.
“Dakota Resources believes in a thriving rural (environment), and innovation is a big part of what makes a place thrive,” Jensen said. “There is so much innovation happening in many of our rural communities, and we want to celebrate that work as well as show other rural communities what is possible. When we celebrate innovation in rural places, it can inspire and spur more innovation.”