Faces of the Boom: Rising rent forces woman to move back in with family

Michelle Thomas, pictured Thursday, May 15, 2014, had to move away from Williston, N.D., after her rent increased and now commutes from Montana to work. Amy Dalrymple/Foum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – At 31, Michelle Thomas is back living at home, but it’s not by choice.

The Williston woman was forced to move in with her grandmother in Bainville, Mont., after her apartment building was sold and the new owner increased the rent.

Thomas said she learned on Jan. 20 that her rent of $550 a month for a one-bedroom in Williston’s Park Village Apartments would increase to $900 in March.

In addition, the new building owner required tenants to pay a higher security deposit, she said. For Thomas, she would have been required to pay an additional $700 on top of the $200 deposit she paid when she moved in 10 years ago.

The building is more than 30 years old, according to information from the Williams County Assessor’s Office.

Thomas works two part-time jobs in Williston as an administrative assistant and as a custodian for her church. But the two jobs together don’t pay enough for her to afford Williston’s high rent prices on her own.

“A lot of single people are having difficulty,” Thomas said.

Thomas has been living on her own since she was 18. Now she is back living in the home where she grew up and renting a storage unit for some of her belongings.

“It’s hard, especially when you’re used to your own space,” Thomas said.

Thomas now commutes 28 miles one-way to Williston, which can be challenging with busy oilfield traffic and road construction. She allows an hour to get to work on time and often takes Williston’s temporary truck reliever route to avoid the congestion.

She estimates she drives at least an extra 350 miles each week now. Thomas recently had to replace her windshield after a rock came through the glass. During a late spring snowstorm, her Ford Focus went into the ditch during her commute.

“It ended up being a costly day,” Thomas said.

Thomas has started to look at jobs in other communities. But her family lives in the area and she doesn’t want to move.

“I’ve seen a lot of my friends leave because of this,” Thomas said.

Williston will consult attorney general on options for high rent prices

WILLISTON, N.D. – Citizens here pleaded with the Williston City Commission on Tuesday to address steep increases in rental prices, with some comparing the displacement of residents to a natural disaster.

City commissioners plan to ask the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office whether there’s anything the city can do to provide relief. Residents of two trailer parks and several apartment buildings in Williston recently learned of rent increases that in some cases more than doubled the cost.

The trailer parks are tied to the same owner, Renu Properties of Scottsdale, Ariz., and the apartment buildings were purchased by New York companies, said Barbara Vondell, a Williston resident who is working on affordable housing issues.

“It sounds kind of funny that they’re buying up all the properties and raising all the lot rent,” Vondell said.

Commissioner Tate Cymbaluk made the motion to ask the city’s attorney to seek an attorney general’s opinion about what the city can do legally to help residents.

“It’s causing undue hardship to the community,” Cymbaluk said.

Several residents said they may be forced to leave the area due to the rent, which will go from $300 to $850 for some trailer park residents starting June 1.

“It’s very devastating to us all that we’re kind of being forced out,” said Kristy McKechnie, crying as she spoke to commissioners.

Williston resident Lee Steen said he’s not personally affected by the high rent prices, but he’s tired of watching widows get “knocked out” by the increases.

“This is kind of a natural disaster,” Steen told commissioners. “I’m not saying we need FEMA trailers in here right away, but when you go to Bismarck, let them know it’s a natural disaster.”

Commissioner Brad Bekkedahl agreed that residents being forced to leave Williston due to high rents could be compared to being displaced by a flood.

“This is displacing people,” Bekkedahl said. “It’s a different way of displacement.”

In addition to asking the attorney general for assistance, commissioners said they plan to raise awareness of the issue at the state level and talk to federal representatives about adjusting income levels for federal programs.

Bekkedahl added that while it’s not enough, the city of Williston has committed $1.2 million in funding to projects for elderly housing or reduced rental housing and sold property for low-income housing.

“All of those have waiting lists of more than 50 people,” Vondell said.

‘Insane rent hikes’ spur protest

Williston, N.D., residents affected by high rental prices hold a protest on Friday, May 9, 2014, in Williston. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – Diana Avans moved back to Williston in 1991 to be near her mother, but now she worries she can’t afford to stay.

The retiree received a letter last week that the monthly lot rent in her trailer court will increase from $300 to $850 in June.

“This is just the beginning,” Avans. “You know they’re not going to stop at $850.”

Avans joined a handful of people who participated in a protest Friday afternoon across from Williston City Hall, holding signs that called for stopping “insane rent hikes” and protection for the elderly.

The protest, which continued Friday evening at Williston’s Harmon Park, was organized by Barbara Vondell, who arranged a similar event in November when a different Williston trailer court increased its lot rent.

This time, the issue hits even closer to home for Vondell because her mother is one of the Williston residents facing a steep increase to live in her trailer.

Vondell’s mother, who is 77 and has Alzheimer’s, receives $720 a month in Social Security benefits, but the lot rent will be $850. Vondell, her caregiver, said she’ll be able to cover the increase in rent.

“It’s going to be a struggle, but we’ll make it,” said Vondell, who is running for the state Senate to fight for affordable housing.

City commissioner Tate Cymbaluk, who stopped by to visit with some of the participants, said the investors who purchased the Williston trailer parks have taken advantage of the situation and are placing a severe hardship on residents.

“It’s a true picture of greed,” Cymbaluk said.

Although state statutes prohibit rent control, Cymbaluk said he wants city commissioners to have a discussion with legal counsel about whether there’s something that can be done to lessen the burden on residents.

Vondell and others at the event called for the city to make an effort to “grandfather in” rental prices for the elderly and people on fixed incomes.

“Something’s just got to be done,” said Steve Irgens, a lifelong Williston resident who now pays $1,000 for a one-bedroom apartment.

When Irgens moved into that apartment 12 years ago, rent was $190. He recently paid $650 a month until a New York company purchased the building raised rent to $1,000, Irgens said. Tenants were unable to sign leases that are longer than six months, and Irgens fears he won’t be able to stay in Williston if it goes much higher.

“Everybody in the building’s kind of scared,” said Irgens, who works for a silk screen T-shirt business.

Vondell said she thought more people would be at the protest, but some are afraid of repercussions if they speak out.

“People are scared,” Vondell said. “The elderly, especially, they don’t want to say anything because they’re afraid to get kicked out.”

Frostbitten man faces uncertain future

Wayne Williams, recently discharged from the hospital after a double amputation, holds a sign looking for work on Tuesday, March 11, 2014, in Watford City, N.D. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WATFORD CITY, N.D. – Wayne Williams used to live in the swamps of Louisiana, sleeping outside and not caring that he didn’t have a home.

Like thousands of others attracted by the oil boom, Williams moved to North Dakota in search of work. But he was so used to living out in the elements that he didn’t anticipate how dangerous being homeless in the cold could be.

One night, Williams climbed in a Dumpster in Watford City to get out of the wind, burning two of his blankets, his boot liners and his scarf to stay warm. But his hands and feet got so numb from the subzero temperatures it took 2½ days before he managed to climb out.

“My fingers were freezing and my feet were frozen and I could barely stand up,” said Williams. “I thought I was going to kick the bucket in there.”

Williams said he thought he’d get the feeling back in his feet after he went inside the Kum & Go to warm up. But he noticed they were turning black, and a friend he ran into from Bible study drove him to the emergency room.

He later woke up in Trinity Hospital in Minot, with both of his legs amputated below the knees due to the severe frostbite.

That was a little over two months ago, and while Williams is healing, he’s got a long road ahead of him.

Williams left the hospital Friday, took a cab to a nearby grocery store to buy his first cigarettes in two months and five days and wait for his ride.

“I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was going to go,” Williams said.

He gets around in a used wheelchair a friend brought him and is now staying with friends near Watford City, wearing knee pads to so he can move around the trailer on his hands and knees.

Williams is waiting for Medicaid paperwork to be processed and is expected to be fitted with prosthetic legs.

In the meantime, he is looking for work in Watford City so he has money for living expenses and $200 a month in prescriptions.

“I just keep praying about it. That’s all I can really do,” Williams said.

$20 and a sign

Williams, who took the bus from Louisiana to North Dakota last July and arrived with $20 in his pocket, was known for standing by the Watford City Kum & Go holding a sign that said he was looking for work.

Williams was back there Tuesday in his wheelchair with a sign that read “Needs work. Help if u can? God bless u.”

Before the amputation, some people driving hollered at him to get a job, but Williams said his goal was just that – to find work, not a handout.

“Everybody interpreted that as a request for money, but literally he was asking for work and he was serious about it,” said Paul Lehto, who moved to Watford City from Michigan last year and met Williams through a men’s church group.

Before his injury, Williams found two construction jobs by holding the sign, but got frustrated after neither one paid him for the work he did. In one case, Williams said he installed insulation all day long and even one all-nighter, but he got strung along when he inquired about a paycheck.

“I just didn’t want to give up,” Williams said. “I hate the cold, but I didn’t want to give up and turn around and go back to Louisiana because there ain’t nothing there.”

An unnecessary tragedy

Community members in Watford City were devastated to hear about Williams losing his feet, said the Rev. Barb Becker of Glory of the Lord Family Ministries.

“What happened to Wayne really wounded this community,” said Becker, who visited him several times in the hospital. “We were all heartbroken about it because it was all so unnecessary, a terrible tragedy.”

Several people had tried to buy Williams a bus ticket to Louisiana as temperatures started to get cold, Becker said.

While Williams now says he wishes he would have listened, Becker encourages him to look forward.

“We can’t go back to that. It’s time to move on,” Becker said. “Let’s take this tragedy and turn it into triumph.”

Becker and others had been working to establish a homeless shelter in Watford City for some time, and Williams’ story has brought the need front and center, she said.

“It helped ignite the fire a little stronger,” said Becker, who said the community supported her years ago when she was homeless.

Becker is working with someone who is considering donating land for a shelter. Otherwise, the town’s hospital may be an option after a new hospital opens, Becker said, but that could be two years away.

“In the meantime, we do the best we can,” Becker said. “We really have a need now, though.”

‘Flower man’

Lehto is spreading the word about Williams, a man who has never applied for food stamps or welfare and collected cans or did odd jobs to meet his needs in Louisiana.

“He’s trying to be a rugged individualist, trying to make it on his own,” Lehto said.

People who get to know Williams as more than a man holding a sign learn he is deeply spiritual and enjoys giving bouquets of flowers to strangers – earning him the nickname “flower man” in Louisiana.

Lehto is working to raise funds to help Williams while he waits for Medicaid assistance, in addition to raising awareness about homelessness.

“It’s something that can happen really to anybody, whether they realize it or not,” said Lehto, who stayed in a tent when he first arrived in Watford City and now lives in an RV due to the city’s abundance of jobs but shortage of housing.

The Wayne Williams benefit fund at First International Bank will go toward meeting needs that Williams has, such as buying him much-needed glasses, a cell phone and replacing some belongings that he lost. Williams wants any extra money to go toward the homeless shelter.

“Wayne’s goals are usually pretty frugal and pretty modest,” Lehto said.

 ‘Crap happens’

Becker, who was surprised Williams left the hospital, is encouraging Williams to consider rehabilitation so he can learn to walk with prosthetic legs. But Williams, whose main worry about being in a wheelchair is “it’d be hard to live off in the woods,” is talking about making his own prosthetic legs.

He says the most difficult part of his ordeal was being cooped up in a hospital room.

“That bothers me more than worrying about how I’m going to walk or whether I’m going to get phony legs,” Williams said.

Williams, who stays in good spirits, said he lives one day at a time.

“Crap happens. You just accept it,” Williams said. “You can’t sit around and boo hoo all you want, it’s not going to get you nowhere.”

Williams isn’t sure what his future holds, but he doesn’t have family or any reason to go back to Louisiana, he said.

Becker is hopeful that Watford City will have a shelter in place soon.

“If he’s willing to, he’ll always have a place,” Becker said. “He won’t be on the streets anymore, he’ll have a safe place. We’d like to include him in that ministry.”

Williston moves to help homeless, but shelter still weeks away

WILLISTON, N.D. – City commissioners here took the first step this week to allow churches to serve as emergency homeless shelters.

Temperatures will be diving below zero next week, but it will be at least another month before shelter is available for people who arrive in the boomtown unprepared for the housing shortage.

Commissioners unanimously adopted the first reading of an ordinance that establishes guidelines for churches or other organizations to apply for permits to provide temporary shelter during the winter.

Williston pastors who attended Thursday night’s meeting applauded the city leaders’ decision.

“This is a huge issue in our town,” said the Rev. Muriel Lippert of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. “All of us are afraid that we’re going to have to do a funeral for someone who froze to death.”

Williston does not have a homeless shelter and the city’s zoning ordinances do not allow for temporary homeless shelters.

Planning and Zoning Director Kent Jarcik has been working with a Williston ministerial group that wants to begin a shelter program they call Operation Heat. The new ordinance, which is patterned after a Dickinson program, would set the groundwork for the churches to apply for a permit, Jarcik said.

Dickinson Churches United for the Homeless launched in February 2013 and is now in its first full winter season. Seven churches take turns hosting the shelter and volunteers staff it from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.

“Volunteers really drive the program,” said Director Bill Kelly said. “It takes a couple hundred volunteers per month to make it work.”

In December, the program housed an average of five men per night, Kelly said. The maximum capacity is 15, but the program has never had more than nine people scheduled in one night, he said.

Like Williston, most of the people seeking temporary shelter in Dickinson are newcomers who moved to North Dakota for jobs, Kelly said.

Williston city commissioners will consider a second and final reading of the ordinance at their Jan. 14 meeting. If approved, the earliest a group could apply for a permit is at the Jan. 28 meeting, Jarcik said.

The Salvation Army, New Hope and Saving Grace churches in partnership with the Williston Evangelical Ministerial Alliance are planning to apply for a permit.

In the meantime, Williston churches are doing what they can to provide assistance to people this winter. For example, First Lutheran Church held overnight prayer vigils during cold nights.

Williston’s Concordia Lutheran Church provided temporary shelter from May 2011 until September. It stopped after city planning and zoning staff said the church needed several fire and building code upgrades to serve as a shelter.

Indoor RV park provides keeps campers and families out of the cold

The North Dakota Indoor RV Park near Watford City, N.D., brings RV living out of the elements. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WATFORD CITY, N.D. – When a group of Minnesota partners announced they were planning an indoor RV park to house North Dakota oilfield workers, the idea prompted mixed reactions.

“So many people thought we were crazy,” said Louis Bonneville of Carlton, Minn., one of the park’s owners.

But for workers like John Coffer, who spent North Dakota winter months in his RV and once got stuck inside when the door froze, the option to move his camper indoors was a pleasant change.

“It’s nice to step out of your RV and not step into a pile of snow,” said Coffer, a natural gas plant operator.

The North Dakota Indoor RV Park recently expanded near Watford City and the owners have turned down offers to replicate the concept elsewhere, said Bonneville, the park’s managing partner.

The park features a series of 10 insulated and climate-controlled buildings that can house 236 campers.

Eight of the buildings have been full for the past three months and two that were recently built to accommodate 41-foot RVs “are pretty much spoken for,” Bonneville said.

The North Dakota Indoor RV Park, pictured Monday, Nov. 11, 2013, has 10 buildings accommodating 236 indoor RV spots near Watford City, N.D. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

The park did see some tenants leave during the summer, but some who tried to return as cold temperatures set in discovered that the park was full and they couldn’t get back in, Bonneville said.

Owners anticipate that next summer the facility will stay full so tenants don’t lose their spots. In addition, the park recently added 70 outdoor spots will serve as a “holding area” while tenants are on a waiting list, Bonneville said.

The indoor spots cost $1,250 to $1,450 a month in the winter and $1,000 to $1,300 a month in the summer with all utilities included. The outdoor spots cost $900 a month with water, sewer and electricity included.

RV parks in the Bakken often charge $800 or more per month for rent, but electricity and propane are typically not included.

The indoor park will save people the expense of insulating their campers and it will extend the life of their RV by protecting it from the elements, Bonneville said.

Cheryl Long and her family moved from Florida to the indoor park about a year ago because it was the only affordable housing they could find.

Moving the family of four from a three-bedroom house into a camper was challenging, but the indoor space keeps them out of the cold and wind and provides extra storage.

“We’re warm and cozy,” Long said.

Long said she takes a lot of walks with their dog to spend time outdoors. The buildings are primarily windowless except for small windows in the doors.

“You’re in a box within a box,” Long said. “I miss being able to see the sunrise and sunset.”

The family also spends time at the common building, which features flat-screen TVs, arcade games, laundry, vending services and postal service.

The facility is designed to have air exchange ventilation and fire protection and is approved by the North Dakota Department of Health. Vehicles and gas furnaces are not allowed in the buildings.

The park also does background checks on tenants and the buildings provide extra security.

“A lot of families just feel safer here,” Long said.

Amid protest, Williston mayor appoints panel on affordable housing

Barbara Vondell of Williston, N.D., addresses the Williston City Commission on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013, about doing more to address the high cost of housing. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – A group of residents who say they’re fed up with the high cost of housing here urged Williston city commissioners Tuesday to do more to find solutions.

Barbara Vondell, a Williston resident leading the effort, said the group collected 863 petition signatures from people who want the city to provide tax incentives to developers to build low- and moderate-income housing.

Vondell formed a Facebook group called People in Williston Have Had Enough after a local trailer court raised lot rent from $350 to $750 a month, affecting many senior citizens on fixed incomes.

After researching the issue and holding a protest this month, the group decided to expand its effort to help find affordable housing for all residents.

“We realized that it wasn’t just the seniors,” Vondell said. “It’s everybody.”

Williston Mayor Ward Koeser thanked the group for researching the issue and said he considered calling and asking to sign their affordable housing petition.

“It is the issue that haunts us,” Koeser said. “It’s just a huge challenge.”

Koeser appointed a new city committee to study affordable housing and asked for three members of Vondell’s group to participate. Vondell said she’s researching a zoning policy a city in Maryland has that may work for Williston.

“We’re going to try to work with you,” Koeser said. “Sometimes when you bring new people in with a new perspective, maybe we’ll find a way.”

Commissioner Brad Bekkedahl said the city has sold city property at reduced rates for senior housing and has provided incentives for other projects that provide lower rents.

“We just need more of those projects to come forward,” Bekkedahl said.

Faces of the Boom: After return to hometown, a struggle to stay

Phyllis Larson, 76, pictured Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, wants to continue living in her hometown of Williston, N.D., but rent for her apartment is nearly $1,300 a month and she worries it may increase even more. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – Phyllis Larson, 76, decided to retire for good two years ago.

But then the Williston woman got a note on her door that her rent was going up.

“I was just devastated,” said Larson, who spent her career as a health professional.

Larson, who returned from Spokane, Wash., to her hometown of Williston about 10 years ago to be closer to family, said rising rent prices in the oil boomtown have been a struggle for her.

“When I came back here, I got hit in the face,” Larson said.

Days after she left her job at Williston’s Bethel Lutheran Home, Larson said she went back to her “understanding boss” and asked for some part-time work.

Larson continues to work two days a week to afford her two-bedroom apartment, where rent has increased from $550 about 10 years ago to just under $1,300 today.

After Larson pays her rent, utilities, cable and phone bills, she says she has about $200 each month remaining from her retirement income, Social Security and part-time job. She’s tried to apply for low-income senior housing but was told she doesn’t qualify.

Recently, Larson’s son has been living with her and helping out with expenses. But he’s moving to a new place Jan. 1 and Larson worries about making ends meet.

“When he moves out, that’s when I’m going to feel it,” Larson said.

She used to have a one-year lease, but recently the company has gone to month-to-month arrangements with tenants, making Larson nervous it could go up again.

One of Larson’s neighbors moved in with family in Grand Forks, and her good friend recently moved to Bismarck.

“We’ve got to do something because it’s driving people out of here,” Larson said.

But although the oil boom has changed her hometown dramatically, Larson said her only gripe is the rent and she doesn’t want to leave.

“I was born and raised here, and it’s my home,” Larson said.

Group protests rent hikes in Willison, seeks help from city

Organizer Barbara Vondell, right, and supporter Donna Lysaker, center, and others protest high rent prices in Williston, N.D., on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – 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.

Church must close doors as Williston shelter

Bret Schoening, a job-seeker from Ohio, pictured Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, is among nearly 30 men temporarily staying at Concordia Lutheran Church in Williston, N.D., while he searches for work and housing. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – A church here that has been temporarily housing job-seekers while they get on their feet is being forced to end its lodging program this week, leaving about 30 men with nowhere to sleep.

Concordia Lutheran Church would need to remodel its building to add fire-protection sprinklers, showers for residents and other updates to meet building and fire codes, according to Williston city officials.

In a letter dated Aug. 12, city planning staff gave Concordia 30 days to discontinue the “overnighters” program until the facility can be brought up to code.

The Rev. Jay Reinke said the church doesn’t have the money to hire an architect and fulfill the city’s requirements. Friday will be the last night people can stay overnight at the church, said Reinke, adding that he is disappointed and saddened by the city’s actions.

“We do need them in our workforce,” Reinke said of the men staying there. “Why not enable that process and facilitate that?”

Since May 2011, the Missouri Synod Lutheran church has helped new arrivals to Williston who come seeking oil boom jobs but are unprepared for the city’s housing shortage, expensive hotel rates and lack of shelter facilities. It became well known through word-of-mouth. Reinke estimates at least 1,000 people have stayed at the church.

The job-seekers – usually men – sleep on the floor of the church for a few nights or up to one or two months while they find work and housing.

Bret Schoening, 28, arrived in Williston on the train from Ohio a week ago to search for a job after the car he had used to operate a mobile auto detail business died. His options were to work for $9 an hour in Ohio or use the little savings he had to find a higher paying oil job in North Dakota.

“We just want to come here and make a better life for ourselves and our children,” said Schoening, who spent hundreds of dollars on hotels before going to Concordia this week. “We just want to be honest and work hard and pursue the American dream.”

Reinke said as word is getting out that the church program is ending, he’s heard from people who say they couldn’t have become established in town without the church’s help.

“Saying goodbye represents a very sad end to what has been a remarkable opportunity to meet, to know, to love and to serve people from around the nation and around the world,” Reinke said.

Not universal support

Although Concordia’s leadership has voted to continue the overnight program, not all members of the congregation have supported it, and some neighbors have expressed concerns.

The Planning and Zoning Department got involved last March after church elders contacted the department with questions about whether the overnight lodging is in compliance with city code, according to a letter written by Kent Jarcik, the department’s director.

An inspection by city planning, building and fire officials determined that allowing people to sleep in the church overnight is not permitted under zoning ordinances.

“The planning department would support a use as long as it meets code,” Jarcik said in an interview this week.

A letter from staff planner Rachel Ressler outline the upgrades needed, including being handicap accessible, have a designated sleeping room and showers and bathroom facilities to accommodate the number of people staying there.

In addition, the letter states that the church would need to provide overnight supervision and adequate resources for job searching and counseling.

“You’re raising the bar so high that no churches can help,” Reinke said.

Pulled from agenda

Concordia applied for a special use permit to continue operating the program and was on the August agenda of the Planning and Zoning Commission. Jarcik recommended that the item be pulled from the agenda because the application did not include an architect’s plan to bring it up to code and was determined to be incomplete.

“Once it’s taken off the agenda, it was not able to be discussed,” said Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Glenn Boyeff this week.

Mayor Ward Koeser said if Planning and Zoning would have rejected the application, it could have come to the City Commission for an appeal.

“Since it never got dealt with by them, it didn’t come to the City Commission for an appeal,” Koeser said. “That put a stop to the process”

Koeser, whose business is across the street from the church, said he commends Concordia for trying to find a temporary solution.

“I have tremendous appreciation for what Pastor Reinke is trying to do. As a neighbor, they’re not causing us any problems. I personally supported what they were trying to accomplish,” Koeser said. “Obviously I’m part of a team and the team at this point has concerns with people staying in a place at night.”

Williston Police Chief Jim Lokken also has expressed support for the program.

Some neighboring residents wrote letters to the city opposing the church’s application, citing concerns about safety of families and children.

Reinke said he has tried to respond to concerns from neighbors and the city, including limiting the number of people to 29 or less and prohibiting people from sleeping in vehicles in the parking lot.

Unsure where to go

The men staying at the church this week said they’re unsure what they’ll do on Saturday. Some said they’ll sleep in their vehicles, another said he’ll “squat” somewhere until he can return home to get his vehicle.

“There’s just no help for people like us,” said Jon Kenworthy from Chicago.

Francisco Guadarama Jr. of Chihuahua, Mexico, said he’ll keep looking for a job with housing for another month and then may go to Phoenix or New Mexico, where it is warmer and cheaper to live.

“We just need a place where people can sleep,” Reinke said.