WILLISTON Four people waiting in the parking lot at Harmon Park in Williston have spent the last week or so invariably being called "Russians," "Communists," "Socialists" and even "trailer trash," by other city residents, but the camaraderie among them, with many jokes and smiles, is very strong. The strange thing is they only really got together about a month and a half ago to address a problem that many in Williston and other western communities know very well.
Their rent is too high.
So, they formed a semi-organized demonstration group called "People of Williston have had Enough" to bring a front against the rising costs of living in their hometown. By 4 p.m. Friday afternoon, there were 811 members of the official Facebook page (www.facebook.com/groups/PeopleofWilliston), a number that has steadily climbed daily since the page launched on Oct. 24.
Barbara Vondell, a leader of a grassroots effort in Williston to draw attention to rental increases that some people feel are too high, stands next to the sign for what is now the Elm Estates at Williston. Rent at the mobile home park, located along University Avenue, doubled when new owners came in, prompting people there to speak out.
Their first demonstration, with picket signs and cars honking in support, was held Nov. 9 along the sidewalk of Harmon Park.
Barbara Vondell, a lifelong Williston resident, is the de facto leader of the group, and has enough research into the issue to speak at length.
Of primary concern is what is now Elm Estates at Williston, a mobile home park at 2600 University Avenue. When new owners, who are based in Arizona, acquired the property earlier this year, rents doubled from $350 to $750 per month for lot space. Members of the group felt this was pricing some of the most vulnerable residents, including the elderly on assistance, and others, with what they termed "good but not oil field jobs," out of the town they had grown up in or even raised families in.
"It's a transient city," Larry Granbois, a cousin to Vondell who has lived in the mobile home park for roughly 10 years, said of Williston. "It's just a city where people can come in, make their money, and leave. It's a city for the business owners to make their money and grow, or whatever you want to call it."
Granbois lives on a Veterans Affairs disability pension, and lot rent isn't the only thing affecting the group, either, he said.
"We're homeowners. We own our own homes. We pay taxes every year on our homes," he said. "I've got an old FEMA house that was worth a thousand dollars. And the city keeps increasing the value of it. It was 20-some thousand last year and this year my tax assessment for this broken-down trailer is $30,000. ... We're homeowners. We're just renting the land."
"A lot of people are thinking we're asking for further entitlements or something like that," he added. "No, we're just asking for a fair chance to keep on living."
At current housing costs, all members of the group seem to agree that there's very little money left over to go out or do anything other than really subsist and pay the rent.
"I'm an author, but I haven't made any money," said Noreen Sergent, a member of the group who has lived in the park for nearly 27 years. "My husband works, and he's got a good job, but we can't afford the rent and you can't do anything extra."
"There is low-income housing," Vondell said. "But they said that seniors and people who really need it don't have to be at the bottom of the list. They can bump them up. Otherwise it's a 10- to 12-month wait."
Sergent says she's caught in the middle of the whole thing. She and her husband, Jerry, she said, are not considered poor, but they're not rich, either. So that puts them at low priority for waiting lists but also in a hard spot to move anywhere else, since rents aren't better elsewhere in the city.
"It's probably our biggest issue, what we'll call affordable housing," said Ward Koeser, the long-time mayor of Williston.
"I certainly empathize with those who have been affected," he added. "If somebody has lived in their community all their life, then you don't want them to leave."
But the issue is, of course, one of supply and demand.
"A year ago you couldn't even find an apartment. Now you can find an apartment. You just can't afford it," Koeser said.
Although the Elm Estates park is not the only point of complaint for rents gone skyward in the city, the rent increase there was the stem of this latest movement of bringing the troubling situation to light. The companies involved in the project largely offered no comment. There weren't curt denials to comment on the issue, but instead denials seemed to be based on significant bad press this particular endeavor has caused them.
A representative of the management company of the park, however, did speak a little on the issue but didn't want to be quoted directly.
The representative said that the rent increase is comparable to that of other mobile home park rents in the area, which she said public records on rental rates will back up.
And, she's right.
Without even going into public records, a cursory examination of what remains available for rent in Williston shows that the new rent is not outrageous when compared to similar properties in the market.
"That's a fair statement," said Tate Cymbaluk, a city commissioner and real estate broker at Basin Brokers in Williston, about the rate comparisons. "The problem, though, is that when they raise the rates so high, it makes it difficult for the tenant because the wages have not kept up with rents.
"The people who are on a fixed income, and certainly those who are on Social Security and the elderly, are the people I feel sorry for," Cymbaluk said. "They were here in the beginning, they stayed here, they raised families here ... and due to an unintended consequence, they are affected.
The fact remains supply and demand, as the property manager and Koeser pointed out. When companies invest in the area, they pay higher premiums for the land than they might in other parts of the country and have to adjust the rents accordingly to recoup their investments.
But economics still leave some people with limited options to stay where they are.
What to do
When asked if members of the group would ever consider leaving, there was a clamor of reasons this option isn't feasible, either.
"Where to? You'd have to go hundreds of miles away," Granbois said. "Is there housing in Minot? After the floods in Minot, Bismarck, Grand Forks, Fargo? Where do we move? We have to have money to move. If we can't sell our trailers, we don't have the capital to pick up and move to another state. ... What do we do?"
"We were looking at land for sale, and there was some for sale, and it was a big price, $70,000 or more for an acre or even a half acre, but you can't put your old trailer on it. They have restrictions out there," said Shirley Haga, who has lived in the park for 23 years. "So what good is it? So, yeah, if I had $70,000 to go buy an acre of land, what good does it do me if I can't move my home?"
But some people have already moved anyway, if the online activity surrounding the group is any indication.
Vondell wrote an online petition (http://chn.ge/18BGUSy) addressing the Williston rent issue, which, as of Saturday, had garnered 515 signatures.
Although the majority of the comments on the petition are from people listing a Williston address, some come from as far as Odessa, Texas, and Belleville, Mich., from former residents claiming they had to leave because they couldn't make it anymore.
"It is putting our elders (who built this town up) out in the streets, all it is, is greed, not everyone works in the oil field," wrote one commenter, listing an address in nearby Trenton.
Another commenter said she signed the petition "because I am paying $3,250 a month in rent, and I can't afford it."
"We want affordable housing," Granbois said. "We've got to get control of the rent in this city. And, actually, in the whole Bakken area, because it's not just Williston ... They're complaining, these other cities, just as bad as we are because they're getting gouged, too."
"This isn't just about our trailer court. This is about rent for everybody," Sergent said.
While Cymbaluk said that there are certain state statutes that bind the hands of local leaders on some solution options, there might be a fix in lending policy for those who wish to create or invest in rental property. But short of that, there is an even simpler solution that might have helped, and might still be able to help, renters.
Cymbaluk said that if property owners raised the rent in phases, rather than a shock all at once, it would have allowed renters to look into different options or plan ahead.
Speaking for himself, Koeser said he looks forward to signing the petition once he gets the chance, because "rent is too high."