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In downsizing home, Grand Forks seniors find frustration

Diana Watland, 67, found herself with a problem familiar to many people her age: too much house. "It's too much to take care of, taxes are high, and it's just time to downsize," said Watland, sitting in her home, filled with stacks of boxes almos...

Diana Watland poses amid her boxed up belongings
Diana Watland poses amid her boxed up belongings last week as she prepares to move out of her Grand Forks, N.D. home of 19 years. Watland, 67, said she found housing options in Grand Forks for seniors very limited after deciding to downsize, but is finally moving into a two-bedroom apartment.JOHN STENNES/GRAND FORKS HERALD

Diana Watland, 67, found herself with a problem familiar to many people her age: too much house.

"It's too much to take care of, taxes are high, and it's just time to downsize," said Watland, sitting in her home, filled with stacks of boxes almost as high as she is tall.

She has owned the house at 1619 First Ave. N. in Grand Forks for 33 years, and she wants something that is small, without stairs and less work to take care of by herself.

Watland is also in a situation shared by many Grand Forks residents her age: not enough places to for seniors to move into.

She has settled on a two-bedroom south Grand Forks apartment, but finding something she liked in a local apartment market that typically has a vacancy rate around 2 percent was difficult, she said.


"Apartment hunting was crazy," said Watland, who was also frustrated with local offerings for 55-plus senior housing.

"You have to get on a waiting list, and it's all booked," she said.

Colette Iseminger, executive director of the Grand Forks Senior Center, said Watland's predicament is common.

"They haven't built any market-rate senior housing since before the flood" in 1997, she said.

Bottleneck hits young homebuyers

The housing frustrations of people like Watland are not limited to seniors. It has the potential of creating a bottleneck in the overall housing market.

If older homeowners have trouble finding smaller homes, apartments or condos to move into, their houses remain unavailable for other homebuyers.

"It's backing up because there's no place for the seniors to go," Iseminger said.


The city's Blue Ribbon Commission on Housing created last year to study Grand Forks' housing needs identified building senior housing as a key to bringing more houses to the market.

"Local housing professionals and seniors suggest that Grand Forks lacks options in its housing stock with... design features (for seniors' needs), suggesting that seniors are not finding smaller, more accessible living options that are not assisted living," the commission's report said.

The report also said Grand Forks was attracting more seniors from smaller towns and from western North Dakota, seeking health care and other services or to get away from housing shortages in the Oil Patch.

Bigger supply

While the housing commission projects that more seniors will be looking for housing tailored for them, they will soon find more available.

Enclave Companies of Fargo is planning 96 independent-living apartments for seniors at 40th Avenue South and South 15th Street in Grand Forks. Enclave Managing Partner Austin Morris said his company had been working with the Grand Forks Senior Center to develop an understanding of the demand for senior housing and availability at senior facilities in town.

"For the most part it showed these facilities were pretty much occupied and some had wait lists," he said. "We think we'll fill some need in the market."

Enclave will start construction this spring and have apartments ready to be occupied by spring 2014. It plans construction of another 96 units in a second phase.


Grand Forks-based Edgewood Group, which operates senior housing communities in seven states, is also planning independent-living apartments, twin homes and ground-level patio homes, along with assisted-living housing, in Grand Forks, but it has not finished selecting a site.

Edgewood President Phil Gisi said he had been considering building in Grand Forks for years, but the number of seniors in the area had not justified it.

Grand Forks' senior population is only now reaching levels typical of other places after many older residents moved away following the 1997 flood.

"That created, really, an exodus of people of that age," said Gisi, who is planning for growth in demand after 2016. "What we want to do is be in front of it a little bit."

Morris said senior housing gets built less often because population growth statewide has created strong demand for general housing, and many builders opt for those projects over specialized housing for seniors.

"There's only a handful of companies in North Dakota that would be comfortable doing it," he said.

Seniors' needs

Morris said most seniors are looking for some of the same things when they downsize from a home: Little or no maintenance, a sense of community, and storage for a lifetime of accumulating stuff.


The new housing will not be ready for Watland, who is preparing to move in mid-April.

She has already sold her house for more than four times what she paid for it three decades ago, but she is still packing up its contents, including about 1,800 salt and pepper shakers and a collection of Easter Bunny and chick figurines still on display.

"That's going to be the last thing I pack," she said "I just couldn't put away Easter."

Even though she said she is overdue for a something smaller, she is sad to sell the house and nervous about settling into an apartment.

"Each time I'm packing a box, I think, 'Wow,'" she said. "It's a lot to go through."

Call Bjorke at (701) 780-1117; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1117; or send e-mail to cbjorke@gfherald.com .

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