Scarcity of apartments squeezes apartment dwellers with lagging incomes in Grand ForksIt’s a basic lesson in supply and demand, but a lack of apartments and an increase in rent has made life anything but simple for Grand Forks renters.
By: Brandi Jewett, Grand Forks Herald
It’s a basic lesson in supply and demand, but a lack of apartments and an increase in rent has made life anything but simple for Grand Forks renters.
Serena Lackman, 23, recently moved into a one-bedroom apartment, a goal she has had since moving out of UND’s residence halls three years ago. Her income-based rent is lower than the rent charged for similar places and allows her to keep her place while going to school for her second degree.
“It’s the only way I can afford to live by myself,” Lackman said. “It’s really disappointing. At market price, I couldn’t afford it.”
Lackman’s situation isn’t unique.
Renters and housing agencies say high rent prices are keeping many in the city from living comfortably.
Low vacancy rates and incomes that have not kept pace with rising rent costs are likely behind the squeeze renters are feeling.
In July 2013, the city’s rental vacancy rate was 4 percent for 8,246 units surveyed by the Greater Grand Forks Apartment Association. The city’s total number of units is about 11,000, according to city records.
“I’ve never seen this before, and I have nothing to compare it to,” the association’s director John Colter said of the low rate.
But as demand for apartments goes up, the rent prices will of course follow, Colter said.
The rent hikes have left some renters such as Lackman in a tight spot and led her to turn to income-based housing.
“I’ve never had a place where I don’t have to worry about what the rent is,” she said of her prior rentals.
Lackman’s observation reflects the fact that today’s tenants are paying almost a third more in housing costs than they would have a decade ago.
A 2012 housing needs assessment study from the Grand Forks Housing Authority found rent in the city increased by 32 percent from 2000 to 2010 — up about $155 per month.
A renter in 2010 would have to earn $6,000 more per year to pay rent than their 2000 counterpart.
However, the median income for renting households grew to cover only about 18 percent of that added cost during that same time period — increasing $1,081 to $23,106 per year.
The gap in income and rent payments is putting affordable housing out of reach for some residents.
An affordable rental is defined as costing 30 percent or less of a household’s gross income, according to the Housing Authority’s executive director Terry Hanson.
In 2012, an affordable rent payment for households making less than $20,000 per year would be $405 or less.
According to the needs assessment, this group of about 5,000 people consists mostly of UND students, seniors and disabled residents on fixed incomes and other low-income households.
For them, finding an affordable place can be hard to do with Grand Forks’ rental rates.
The Housing Authority’s assessment found that 72 percent of rental units in the city fall between $405 and $1,057 per month.
Grand Forks also recorded the highest median rent in North Dakota in 2010.
A housing needs assessment assembled from census data by the North Dakota Housing Finance Agency listed median rent for the city as $628 per month. The next highest cities were West Fargo and Fargo, recording rents of $626 and $606 respectively.
Since 2010, Grand Forks has likely been displaced by Oil Patch cities, but median rent data from this year is not available to confirm it, according to the finance agency’s spokesman Max Wentz.
“We don’t keep track of fair market rents. We’ve heard reports that rents have increased across the state,” Wentz said. “Housing, especially out west, is at a premium.”
Online classifieds show rents for two-bedroom apartments as high as $2,700 and one-bedroom units for $1,200 in Oil Patch cities such as Dickinson and Williston.
As rent in Grand Forks and the state continues to increase, so does the number of people seeking local housing assistance.
Many in need of assistance submit applications to the Grand Forks Housing Authority, which owns 37 units and manages another 725 units. Hanson said applications are coming in at higher rates, and he estimates about 50 per week have been submitted so far this year.
The authority has 1,265 housing choice vouchers available for those who qualify under federal housing income requirements. Those approved for a voucher must then find an apartment and be able to devote 30 percent of their income to housing costs. The authority covers everything else up to its payment standard for that apartment type.
For a one-bedroom apartment, the standard would be $563 in addition to the renter’s 30 percent contribution. Sometimes that assistance isn’t enough to afford a rental, Hanson said.
Those who don’t find housing through the voucher program can be put on a waiting list for the authority’s owned property — a wait that could last anywhere from two months to two years.
Through a different assistance program, Lackman said she waited a month and a half for her apartment to open up. The wait included two weeks of couch surfing and one month in a different apartment. Now she sends in every pay stub from her job to her rental company, which then adjusts her rent on a monthly basis.
“It’s really hard to afford an apartment here, especially if you want to live on your own,” she said. “I don’t know how people do it.”
Call Jewett at (701) 780-1108; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1108; or send email to email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @GFCityBeat or on her blog at citystreetbeat.areavoices.com.