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No room at the inn

Editor's note: This is part two of a three-part series on housing in Worthington. The third story will be published in Wednesday's edition.

WORTHINGTON -- When Erick Baumgart moved into Worthington, he couldn't find a place to live.

He struggled finding open apartments or houses to rent -- and he's not alone. Many others have reported having the same difficulty when relocating to the community.

"I looked online to see what kind of options there were," Baumgart said. "The city had on their website each residential complex, contact information with pictures.

"Sure enough, every place was unavailable," Baumgart continued. "Half of them I wasn't interested in, and a lot of places I was interested in they wouldn't get back to you. I asked if I could be put on a list and 'Yeah, you're on a list,' but they never really asked for your name or number, so I'm pretty sure I wasn't on a list."

He eventually found a place by driving around and looking for signs in yards.

"Basically I looked for a couple months before moving here and nothing," he said. "I came here, drove around to look for 'For Rent' signs and nothing. I ended up coming about a week or so before moving here and I found a house that was for sale to rent. It was my only option.

"My option was I could stay there and pay rent on it until it sold. And then what? There was no answer. I had to deal with keeping my house available for showings."

Many other young professionals have similar stories.

"It was extremely difficult," said Zach Dingmann, who teaches fourth grade in Worthington. "Right now, when a new teacher comes in, that's the biggest thing we have to do is try to help them find a place that's affordable and decent to live.

"It's a little different because you go to other towns and usually you can grab an apartment, or there are houses or things like that. Some of the places here that are for rent aren't necessarily always known, so it's kind of who you know to help you get that place."

"I moved here to run a new business," said Liz Martin, who formerly managed Worthington's Anytime Fitness location. "The owners were excited to invest in Worthington, through their new business, but they also wanted to buy a house and provide a place for me to rent. They were shocked when they learned of what the housing market had to offer, and the prices that they were charging."

Unfortunately for Martin, that plan fell through, leaving her on her own to find a place to live.

"I didn't think that would be an issue until I started calling around," Martin said. "Most places had a waiting list, and the ones that did have an opening, I was not eligible for because I made too much money."

"That was a shocker. I understand low-income housing, but I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that I was denied because I had money to pay my rent." Martin said.

Long waiting lists

When people are able to get on a waiting list, they are faced with an almost insurmountable wait. According to Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership Chief Operating Officer Lisa Graphenteen, some of the lists are very long.

Willow Court has 20 people on a list. Viking Terrace has 35 and the New Castle Townhomes have 25 on the list. Some of the names are on multiple lists.

"The waiting lists that we have here are for subsidized housing," said Rosie Rogers, executive director of the Housing and Redevelopment Authority. "I have a waiting list out at Prairie Acres for those. I could probably fill that twice if we had units similar that were market-rate, also."

Condition of apartments

When people are able to find places to live, the condition of houses and complexes can be in question.

In 2008, the city of Worthington established a rental housing program to help inspect properties. Since then, the city has only received 12 to 18 complaints.

"The city established a rental housing program and it sets the minimum health and safety items that all rental units must maintain in order to be compliant," said Brad Chapulis, Director of Community and Economic Development. "We do a rental registration where all rental properties are supposed to be registered with the city of Worthington and inspected periodically."

The city contracts with the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership (SWMHP) to do the inspections.

Jorge Lopez, Director of Construction Services for SWMHP, has done some of the inspections for the city.

"There are some apartments and buildings that do need a lot of work," Lopez said. "I know with the city with the new rental requirements, they are focusing on the health and safety of the tenants. People have made some changes, but there are still some units and there are some landlords who are not willing to spend the extra money to make them better and better condition for these people.

"A couple years ago, I remembered walking into some of these houses and basements were made into bedrooms," Lopez continued. "Through the inspections, we found so many things wrong. There were extension cords running all over the place, mattress on the floor, makeshift showers with a hose -- conditions that nobody should live in."

For people moving in, less-than-ideal housing conditions make life difficult.

"All of these property owners keep their places in sub-par condition. The renters get the bad reputation from that," said Justin Stevenson, who has lived in Worthington a year and a half. "There is this reputation that all these people move in and they give the places cockroaches like it's some magical thing they carry along with them. That's because people don't clean up their places when people move out."

But with high demand, there is less incentive to improve the conditions of residences.

"Through my job I've met landlords that live in Arizona, and they just have a house for when their kid went to college 10 years ago and they just haven't sold the house," Baumgart said. "They don't do anything to upkeep the house. They are gone, so they will have someone live there until they either move out or are evicted. Any issues that develop from those, new people would move in.

"As a homeowner, if you knew you had a never-ending stream of renters, why would you upkeep your property? Why would you repaint? Why would you put new siding on? Why would you pay for landscaping? Why would you resurface your driveway? If you knew the demand was so great, why would you continuously pour money into a property?"

Worthington Mayor Alan Oberloh acknowledged the poor condition of some of the rental properties in town.

"Absolutely they're not (in good condition); they are terrible," he said. "A lot of them are. We've made every effort we can to try to keep ahead of them to do inspections. We still have overcrowding issues. It's a supply and demand thing. The city contracts for that service, but I think in order to get a serious handle on it, we might have to take a look at having an employee that's a full time housing inspector. I'm not interested in adding staff. We have to be very sure about it before we add staff."

Bill Keitel, who owns multiple properties in town, said the key is caring about the properties.

"If you pay attention to your renters and you pay attention to your property, you tend to get people who want to rent from you, not people who have to rent from you," Keitel said. "I've found it to be a good experience. Sometimes does the water heater go out or does the furnace go out? All those things happen.

"I don't have the most expensive rentals in town, but I have renters who recognize I take pride in ownership. I would hope my renters do the same."

Impact on businesses

Local businesses have also been affected by the housing shortage.

"There are cases, too, that I know of that's happened where they have already taken a job in Worthington, they try to find housing, they could not and they ended up not taking the job anymore," said Darlene Macklin, executive director of the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce. "They ended up going someplace else. That's really discouraging because we want people to move into our community, and we want our community to grow. When we hear that they can't find housing so they aren't going to take a job, that's serious."

Linda Hill, who works in human resources for Bedford Industries, didn't think that had happened with that company, but acknowledged it was an issue.

"But if you're bringing someone in knowing there's a housing shortage, I've often shared with employees we're bringing in is to contact them, get here, check the property out quickly," Hill said. "Because there is likely someone else right behind you or in front of you that's going to snatch it up as soon as it becomes available. There is certainly a sense of urgency."

The biggest problem is the lack of options in Worthington.

"It's definitely not like living in Sioux Falls and saying, 'Well, I can make arrangements to look at 20 different things today,'" Hill said. "It's like, you're making a trip to town to look at one or two. So that's real unfortunate."

Hill did admit it might affect any possible expansion.

"If we were to do a large expansion with the type of jobs that we would have to relocate people to Worthington, that would certainly be an issue," Hill said. "Many of the positions we fill where we bring people in from out of town are going to be looking for rental properties initially. I'm only speaking in regards to rental and not purchasing.

"Especially if they are new people right out of college, they are certainly not going to be interested in purchasing."

For District 518 Superintendent John Landgaard, finding places for his new staff to live is always a challenge.

"They need to find them as early as possible," he said. "We do struggle. We had a couple really late hires where people were looking for housing right as school was starting. Particularly for some of them who want to rent, it's difficult for them to find things."

JBS, the largest employer in town, also wrestles with the same issue.

"We've been struggling with it for a long time at JBS. We started having talks with the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership and the city probably over six years ago about this being more of a crisis than it's ever been before," JBS Human Resources Director Jenny Andersen-Martinez said.

"For a couple years, we actually bused in employees from Sioux Falls. We don't do that anymore and not because there's not a need anymore, but because people became entrepreneurial and bought their own vans. Now, for our night shift, we have 10 to 20 passenger cargo vans every day."

Andersen-Martinez realizes the impact of people living outside of Worthington.

"What's really unfortunate is these employees could be contributing to the tax base here in Worthington," she said. "They would be buying their gas here, they would be buying their groceries here, and their kids would be in school here. Not saying every single person would move, but I think a lot of people would. I think it's unfortunate that we can't capture that economic activity here in our own town."