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Williston residents face uncertain housing future

 By JERRY BURNS | For The Associated Press

WILLISTON, N.D.  — All they can do now is wait, but for what is the most anxious part of their story.

A short drive through the Elm Estates mobile home court reveals why it has become the center of attention in Williston’s revamped housing effort. A number of trailers are now new, some abandoned, others up for sale and more with people and families living through the latest round of Williston being Williston.

At a corner trailer, Milissa Tickle and three of her four children stand in the family room. It’s being remodeled, so parts of their belongings are strung around everywhere in the trailer. Whether the remodel gets done is another story. In November, the trailer park sold and rent was more than doubled from $350 to $750, a price Tickle said her family could make, but not without her husband.

In November 2014, their current lease will be up and moved to a monthly one, where they’re sure the price will climb until everyone is cleared out.

“We’ve put a lot of money and work into it,” she said.  “So I don’t know if we’re going to leave it or just take it with us.”

Behind her trailer is neighbor Larry Granbois, who in his 60s has health problems that have rendered him unable to work. He’s been getting by through a Veterans Affairs disability pension, but even that has made it difficult to stretch what money he has to meet his needs.

In 2013, for the first time in his life, he had to apply for food stamps, but he insists that while he’s not well off, others are in worse shape in Elm Estates.

Granbois said he recently looked into the Lutheran Social Service senior housing at the Old Junior High, but he wouldn’t be able to afford it, adding he would have trouble right now making the $30 application fee.

“It’s been a rough road so far, but I’m happy I can make through winter,” he said.

Granbois lives in an old Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer from the late-1990s Grand Forks floods that he bought in 2000. Rising property valuations in Williams County are causing financial strain on him as well.

Fourteen years after buying a trailer he was told wouldn’t last for five years, he’s now paying property taxes on something the county said is worth $20,000. He pointed to a few areas of the trailer which have begun to sink into the ground and said he couldn’t sell it a few years ago for $1,000.

“There is no place,” he said when asked about moving it. “There is no place to park a trailer.”

Even now, selling a trailer in Elm Estates is a prickly point with its residents.

After the new leases were signed with Prairie Property Management in Fargo and owners ReNUE Properties in Arizona, residents claim they were told they could sell their trailers. But after some agreements were reached, they learned the purchaser would have to move the trailer off site so ReNUE could replace the old trailer with its own new ones.

Both Prairie Property Management and ReNUE Properties did not return phone calls for this story.

That leads to the trailer of Kirby Strickland, a body shop worker who said he had an agreement to sell his trailer for $70,000 to a man from Illinois, but that the deal fell through after the buyer learned he would have to move it.

He and his wife also had things lined up to buy a house lot near the fairgrounds, but those plans are on hold now until he finds a new place or moves back to Michigan — a last resort for a man that came to Williston for work.

“It’s just a matter of time for everyone,” Strickland said. “Everybody will be evicted.”

Some eviction notices have been handed out in Elm Estates, said Barb Vondell, who through community activism has become the face of the Elm Estates residents.

Vondell said she isn’t against people coming to Williston to make their money or the free enterprise of a business-friendly state, but wants companies to think of the people living on the property they’re purchasing.

She’s currently lobbying the city, businesses and others to either help purchase the property back or help find a place for the residents to go if they can no longer make rent payments.

“These people own their homes, they own their trailers and there’s no place to move them,” she said. “You don’t evict people in December and January in North Dakota.”

Stacy McFarlin, the on-site manager for Prairie Property Management, said she wasn’t aware of any eviction notices or trouble in the park. In January, she had only been with the company for about a month.

“Actual eviction notices, I don’t know about,” she said. “I haven’t handed any out.”

Dee and Jason Colyer, by their account, are the lucky ones so far.

They’ve purchased land and were able to sell their trailer. Jason called the moving process a “nightmare” because Saturday was the last day they had to leave Elm Estates.

It was all hands on deck for the couple and their young daughter.

They moved into the court in August 2011 when rent was just $250.

“At first, I thought it was a typo,” she said of the $750 rent cost.

In the meantime, residents are now up against time. Winter is months away from ending, which eases some of the complication of moving, especially for the elderly and sick who reside in the court.

Many other residents declined to go on the record for this story in fear of retaliation from the owners or managers, despite an attorney representing many of the residents assuring them it couldn’t be done.

Others, like Strickland, are pursuing every outlet they can to get what they can. He hopes he can go through the lawyer and be compensated the $70,000 for having a sale agreement with a potential buyer.

With a backup and last resort plan, Strickland’s future isn’t quite as clouded as that of others in Elm Estates, but time is still ticking away.

“I have a house in Michigan if I absolutely have to, but these old people have nowhere to go,” he said.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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