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Housing shortage hurts Grand Forks residents with disabilities, special requirements

Grand Forks native Mike Dorsher, 68, is seen pictured inside his apartment at Saint Anne's Guest Home in Grand Forks. (Luke Franke/ Grand Forks Herald)1 / 2
Grand Forks native Mike Dorsher, 68, is seen pictured inside his apartment at Saint Anne's Guest Home in Grand Forks. (Luke Franke/ Grand Forks Herald)2 / 2

At about 6 feet tall, 68-year-old Mike Dorsher has to bend his aching back to use the low-set stove and kitchen sink of his wheelchair-accessible apartment.

Dorsher is not in a wheelchair, but he moved into the assisted living apartment at St. Anne’s Guest Home in Grand Forks after having a heart attack and stroke in the late 1990s.

Now, although Dorsher said he still has aches as a remnant of the stroke and can hardly walk farther than a city block without his motorized scooter, his health has recovered enough for him to live independently.

But the problem is: he can’t find anywhere to live.

“I’m sitting in a handicapped unit right now that’s meant for someone in a wheelchair,” he said. “I’d like to get back to living on my own. It’d be just like having a home again, like I used to have.”

Local and state experts said many disabled people, like Dorsher, are struggling to find housing in the Grand Forks area amid the local housing shortage.

“It’s becoming way more difficult to find affordable, accessible housing,” said Shelly Bondy, a direct service specialist at Options Center for Independent Living in East Grand Forks, which helps connect disabled people with resources such as housing.

Accessibility

“The hard part,” Bondy said, “is that all of the old apartments in Grand Forks have hardly any accessibility, and the new ones do, but they’re too expensive,” because many disabled people cannot work and are on a fixed income of Social Security or assistance programs.

Fair housing laws require landlords to make some accommodations for tenants with disabilities, including allowing installation of grab bars or allowing service animals.

Difficulties can arise, though, because each disabled person has different needs, said Randy Sorensen, Options executive director. But when landlords invest in accessibility for a tenant, that tenant often lives there many years because of convenience, he said.

Dorsher just needs an affordable, ground-level apartment with more space, he said. The studio-style apartment he’s in doesn’t have room for his motorized scooter, and all of the appliances are too short for him, designed for someone in a wheelchair.

Shortage

Most of the rental housing in Grand Forks that is both affordable and handicap-accessible falls under the Grand Forks Housing Authority, said Shanna Hanson, Grand Forks housing resource specialist with the North Dakota Center for Persons with Disabilities.

The majority of families on assistance with the housing authority have a head of household who is either disabled or elderly, said Emily Wright, GFHA executive administrator. According to a 2012 U.S. Census survey, about 9 percent of Grand Forks’ population is disabled.

And the difficulties disabled people face trying to find accessible housing have been amplified by the housing shortage in Grand Forks, Bondy said.

Dorsher has his eye on the GFHA’s Grand Forks Cottages and Suites off of South Washington Street, which would fit his needs, but he has been on the waiting list for three years, ever since his health improved enough for him to try to move away from assisted living.

Independence

Living at St. Anne’s Guest House, Dorsher enjoys playing organ during church services and helping the nuns who work there with various jobs. “Even when I (move), I’ll still come back here and help out,” he said.

But he wants to live independently, he said. Bondy and Hanson both said many of their clients feel the same way.

“We would like to be totally independent. It’s the way we grew up,” Dorsher said. “For at least a few years, I’d like that feeling.”

Dorsher said he will try for a couple of more years to find somewhere else to live, but after that, he’ll probably just stay in assisted living at St. Anne’s because of his age.

Handicap-accessible shortage prompts state program

North Dakota’s statewide housing shortage has increased difficulties for disabled people across the state, not just in Grand Forks, experts say.

“They may find something that’s accessible (for disabilities), but it’s not affordable,” said Cheryl Merck, state housing facilitator with the North Dakota Center for Persons with Disabilities.

The center runs the statewide Money Follows the Person Housing Program, which connects disabled people throughout North Dakota with housing options.

The program has housing specialists in Fargo, Bismarck, Minot and Grand Forks.

Merck said the housing program, which is funded by a Department of Human Services grant, was started three years ago as a result of North Dakota’s housing crunch.

“Things are picking up more and more,” with the housing specialists receiving at least ten calls per week, Merck said.

The hardest hit is the Oil Patch, she said, with some people being forced to leave their hometowns for handicap-accessible, affordable housing.

After their rent rises, “they’re ending up having to leave their support systems and leave town because there’s nothing there for them,” Merck said.

For more information on the Money Follows the Person Housing Program, visit www.ndcpd.org/mfp.

Charly Haley
Charly Haley covers city government for the Grand Forks Herald. As night reporter, she also has many general assignments. Before working at the Herald, she was a reporter at the Jamestown Sun and interned at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, Detroit Lakes Newspapers and the St. Cloud Times. Haley is a graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead, and her hometown is Sartell, Minn.
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