Group protests rent hikes in Williston, seeks help from city
WILLISTON – Chuck Miles works six days a week at age 74 while battling cancer to pay his rent in Williston.
Larry Granbois, 63, just applied for food stamps because this winter he will have less than $100 to live on each month after paying rent and utilities.
Jerry and Noreen Sergent would like to sell their trailer and move after their lot rent more than doubled, but they say they’re stuck.
Stories like those prompted a group called “People in Williston Have Had Enough” to organize a protest here Saturday and begin circulating a petition urging city leaders to take action against high rent prices.
Williston native Barbara Vondell organized the event after hearing from friends and family members of a Williston mobile home park whose rent recently increased from $350 to $750 a month.
That hit close to home for Vondell, who cares for her mother with Alzheimer’s disease in a different Williston mobile home park.
“If she lived over there, she wouldn’t even make the lot rent, let alone any of the bills,” Vondell said.
Vondell said the trailer park formerly known as the Schatz park was recently sold and has about 130 to 140 trailers, many of them occupied by seniors on fixed incomes.
Residents of the park, now known as Elm Estates, learned in letters dated Aug. 21 that Prairie Property Management, a Fargo-Moorhead company, was taking over management of the park.
Letters dated Sept. 19 from Prairie Property Management indicated that lot rent would more than double starting Nov. 1. Tenants were told a 30-day notice was due on the first of the month to vacate.
On Oct. 21, residents received a letter that gave them options to sign a 12-month lease at the $750 price or go month to month with the knowledge that the $750 is subject to change.
Residents also were given a third option of selling their mobile homes. However, the company requires that if the trailers are sold, they must be removed from the park.
“It came on us so quickly we weren’t prepared for it,” said Granbois, who signed the one-year lease.
Prairie Property Management’s Fargo-Moorhead office was not open Saturday. A Williston representative for the company said she could not comment.
Granbois said it was a blow to his ego to apply for food stamps for the first time in his life, but his $1,000 monthly pension won’t go very far with $750 rent and winter utility bills he says average $150.
“And I’ve got a lot more than a lot of people,” said Granbois, adding that many of his elderly neighbors live on $500 a month from Social Security.
Kirby Strickland had a buyer for his trailer until he learned of the stipulation that the buyer would have to move it. Other area mobile home parks are full, and a buyer would have a tough time finding a place to move it.
“Right now we’re stuck,” said Strickland, who lives with his wife, 17-year-old daughter and 22-year-old niece.
Joyce Miles said her husband, Chuck, works 32 hours a week at a grocery store deli while also battling cancer of the liver.
“He has to work to pay the rent here. Otherwise we couldn’t do it,” said Joyce, who did not participate in the protest.
The couple signed a one-year lease for the trailer park and are on a waiting list for low-income senior housing, which Joyce said is 10 to 12 months long.
Noreen and Jerry Sergent would like to sell their trailer, but felt they had no choice but to sign a lease.
“Where is someone going to go when you can’t afford the rent and you can’t afford to move it, either?” said Jerry, who works full time but whose wife stays home for health reasons.
Vondell and other supporters are gathering signatures for a petition that asks the city to cap rent at 30 percent of people’s incomes, and that the city provide more incentives to construct affordable housing. The group’s Facebook page has more than 500 members.
“This has got to stop somewhere,” Strickland said while holding a picket sign. “All this is is landlords wanting to fill their pockets while they can.”
Williston Mayor Ward Koeser, who has not been contacted by the group, said the problem for the city is that companies can double the rent and still find tenants due to the housing shortage driven by the oil boom.
Koeser said state law prevents cities from putting a cap on rent, but city leaders are working to encourage more housing construction and incentivize housing for low-income residents.
“I can understand the people’s frustration, and I probably question the need for such a dramatic increase in rent, but it’s privately owned and people have the right, good or bad, they have the right to charge what they want,” Koeser said.
The city has given tax breaks to developers who construct low-income housing, Koeser said, including a recent incentive for the Williston Senior Apartments, which is building a 21-unit addition.
A Lutheran Social Services project expected to open at the end of the year will add 44 apartments for people 55 and older with modest incomes. The rents will range from $330 a month to $780 a month, depending on income.
“I really believe that the only way we’re going to get control of this if at some particular point we have enough housing,” Koeser said.