Whether you know it or not, you’ve likely seen Hani Shafai’s handiwork in Rapid City.
As president of Dream Design International Inc., Shafai has been behind a number of significant development projects.
Drive south on Mount Rushmore Road and there's the Buffalo Crossing and Buffalo Crossing West developments on U.S. Highway 16 and Catron Boulevard.
Head east along East Saint Patrick Street toward the airport and there's the Johnson Ranch and Orchard Meadows mixed-use developments resting on both sides of Elk Vale Road.
Drive downtown and there's the county’s Care Campus, Rapid City Collective Impact’s One Heart Center, and two high-rise School of Mines student housing buildings — all either managed, developed, engineered or owned by Dream Design International Inc. at some point.
And moving ahead, there's the planned 700-acre Shepherd Hills development just east of Menards near the Interstate 90 overpass that travels over East North Street.
As Dream Design International celebrates its 20-year anniversary this year, Shafai’s engineering and consulting business finds itself transitioning into a booming land development company and one of the biggest players of Rapid City’s future.
But for Shafai — who graduated with a Master’s Degree in civil engineering from the School of Mines in 1989, then returned to Mines to teach before joining the city public works department through the '90s — the real important work is just getting started.
As perhaps the largest developer of affordable housing in the area, Shafai knows a thing or two about challenges facing developers, builders and city officials seeking to increase the housing stock.
“There is a need for houses to be below $200,000 but there is also a need for houses to be below or at $100,000,” Shafai said recently from his downtown office along Kansas City Street. “Unfortunately with the cost of construction, it’s really difficult to get to the $100,000 [pricepoint] without creative thinking and planning.”
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Shafai acknowledged that there are options available to developers looking to cut costs and lower home prices, like seeking reduced loan rates for infrastructure improvements through the state or applying for Community Development Block Grants or the creation of a tax increment financing district through the city. But the reality, he said, is there simply isn’t enough subsidy money to go around.
“Subsidies are not available as much as people think,” he said. “There are so many needs regardless if it’s feeding people or taking care of other issues. We can’t just rely on the government to do everything. We have to be creative.”
One idea Shafai was quick to lobby for was reducing the city’s zoning requirements for lot size. By allowing smaller lots, he said developers could build patio size — 600 to 800 square foot — and garden size —300 to 600 square foot — homes that could serve as transitional housing for young professionals, the elderly, or anyone with a limited income. But to solve the affordable housing shortage, Shafai says people need to also look at the other side of the equation.
“We have to look at the other variable, which is the income,” he said. “What we can do to raise our income level?”
Shafai said the city’s economy is too dependent on tourism and while the city’s burgeoning health-care industry is welcome, there needs to be a greater focus on attracting the manufacturing and technology industries.
Improving the state’s transportation network would help incentivize manufacturing businesses, Shafai said. He said the availability of cheap energy and raw materials made Rapid City an attractive location but the shortage of workers and transportation points of access to the city make it difficult and costly to bring workers and materials to the area.
As for attracting more of the technology industry, he said much could be accomplished with a shift in mentality in the state.
“We’re very conservative. We don’t take any chances. We’re very low risk-takers as a state so we’re not willing to invest in our people as much as we should,” he said. “We have to start businesses that will capture our graduates and keep them in our state. We can’t wait for them to start their own businesses. We have to create those businesses that fit the human resources that we are producing.”
By attracting new industries to Rapid City, Shafai believes the median income will rise. But, he added, it is difficult to nurture a workforce where many people are now paid between $12 and $15 an hour without housing they can afford.
“We’re improving but for the size of the community that we live in, the rate at which we are improving is less than what we should,” he said. “That is due to the historic trauma of these segregations between the haves and the have nots. Those improvements are not touching as large a segment of the population as it should and that’s where we as a community have to work together to achieve that goal. I think we have to put more trust in each other.”