Janet Burke worries that she soon won’t have a place to go as her home of 10 years is slated to be demolished for a school parking lot.
The 62-year-old’s Near North Grand Forks apartment was purchased last year by the Grand Forks Public School District, and she is being evicted April 30.
The district purchased two houses, 312 and 314 N. 5th St., in June 2013 for $215,000, according to documents provided by the School District. Those houses, along with the adjacent Executive Corners office building, are to be torn down for a Central High School parking lot.
Of the five tenants living in apartments in the two houses, four have found other living arrangements, but Burke still doesn’t know where she’ll live after she is evicted.
“My greatest fear is that I’ll have nowhere to go and nowhere to put my stuff,” Burke said. Her living room is full of boxes, clothes, out-of-place furniture and dozens of family heirlooms as she decides what she should give away and what she should pack without knowing where she’s going. “I’m really sweating bullets here. I’m scared out of my mind.”
The Central High School parking project has been in the works for years, Superintendent Larry Nybladh said.
The School District has been collaborating with the city on reducing Central High School’s use of the parking ramp and street parking so those spaces can be open for businesses, Nybladh said.
“I know the city planners are well aware of this,” he said. “We’re trying to follow what the city wants us to do.”
But City Planner Brad Gengler said he first heard about the School District’s parking lot project after residents contacted him in either February or March.
“To date, the School District has not yet contacted me or my department,” he said Monday. “I’m kind of in the dark on the whole project.”
The School District owns those houses, Gengler said, and can legally evict tenants. It can also get demolition permits, but the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission would have to approve a parking lot, and the way the land is zoned now, “rezoning would have to occur,” he said.
It is not unusual for city planners to be unaware of a project in these early stages, Gengler said, especially when it isn’t to the point where the School District has submitted applications for permits.
But, he added, “I’m concerned about the project in general,” because of surrounding questions and the city’s recent discussions on affordable housing and downtown development.
The new parking lot will be the last Central High School parking project for the foreseeable future, Nybladh said. The district currently leases 330 spots in the parking ramp, and the new parking lot will reduce that number to 78.
Plans are to assess the proposed parking lot site for demolition in May, and the district hopes the new parking lot can be ready for use by next school year, Nybladh said.
Burke has been pleading with the School District for relocation assistance, saying she believes there are federal and state laws that mandate it.
The district also didn’t give enough notice, she said, as they sent a letter to the tenants Feb. 14, although her letter is dated Jan. 30.
Nybladh said the School District gave tenants verbal notice of their plans as the property was being purchased more than nine months ago, and the matter was discussed publicly at a June 10 School Board meeting.
Also, the seller of the houses told the district the tenants’ leases were terminable upon 30 day’s notice, Nybladh said. The letter of eviction was sent with 75 day’s notice.
Nybladh said the School District’s legal counsel does not believe the relocation assistance laws apply, but regardless, the lawyers have contacted Grand Forks Housing Authority to see if assistance is available for Burke.
Emily Wright, executive administrator for GFHA, said she can’t comment of specific cases, but said in general, GFHA has waiting lists and would not be able to prioritize assistance for someone just because they’re being evicted by the School District.
Burke said she’s waiting for legal confirmation on whether she is owed relocation assistance.
“Until it can be settled legally, I need a place to live,” she said.
Nybladh said he’s not sure if Burke will be literally forced out of her home April 30, but she eventually will have to leave.
Burke has contacted public officials including City Council member Bret Weber, whose ward includes the Near North Neighborhood.
“It’s a School District matter and not a City Council matter,” Weber told the Herald. “(The district) can buy whatever property they want.”
He added, though, that downtown development experts say flat parking lots are inefficient, and he hopes the School District and city can find a better solution.
Burke said she will probably end up staying with friends until she can get a living situation figured out, but she will likely have to get rid of many of her belongings, which upsets her.
“You just do what you can do,” she said. “I’m very scared about it all.”