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Thief River Falls workers find housing options scarce during hiring boom

THIEF RIVER FALLS -- Bob and Carly Jetty sold their home in Devils Lake and found work here this summer because they wanted a lifestyle change. "We definitely got one," Carly said with a hearty laugh from the 30-foot travel trailer that has been ...

Carly Jetty gets a top from the closet in her car
Carly Jetty retrieves a top from the backseat closet of her car parked next to the family's 30-foot travel-trailer in Tourist Park in Thief River Falls, Minn. Jetty and her husband Bob have new jobs at Digi-Key, but are forced to live in their trailer with their two children until they can find suitable housing.JOHN STENNES/GRAND FORKS HERALD

THIEF RIVER FALLS -- Bob and Carly Jetty sold their home in Devils Lake and found work here this summer because they wanted a lifestyle change.

"We definitely got one," Carly said with a hearty laugh from the 30-foot travel trailer that has been their summer home here, where more permanent housing than a trailer comes at a premium.

Bob has lived in the trailer at Tourist Park since June 10 while Carly joined him in July. Teenage children Mikaela and Jonathan have spent time here too, but are elsewhere in more comfortable quarters as the school starting date of Sept. 3 approaches.

"I'd hate to start the school year with the kids homeless," mom said.

The spouses came here because they heard of the wealth of jobs being offered by Digi-Key, an electronic components distributor. This year, Digi-Key wants to add 150 jobs and Arctic Cat wants to add 100.


While other parts of the country are seeking employers, this area is seeking employees -- and livable quarters for them. Housing's twin problems are supply and price, because of the scarcity.

The Jettys have hopes about two upcoming appointments to see rentals that would accommodate a family of four. The rents for the space they need are typically $850 to $900, compared to their house payment in Devils Lake of $650, they said.

"And our home was twice as nice as the rentals we've seen," Carly said.

It's a seller's market because demand exceeds supply and the gap is growing wider. The demand is a result of the job market. A recent study showed that Thief River Falls has 8,636 residents and 9,092 jobs. And, employment in Pennington County has grown four times as quickly as the population since 2000, adding 1,857 jobs and 490 people.

"It's a good environment here and I want to work here because it's good pay," Carly said. "But, for now, we have no place to go."

Help on the way

However, help appears to be on its way for the Jettys and others.

After several years of a building drought, scheduled to be completed this year are a 41-unit apartment complex and eight town homes. Planned for a 2014 completion are a 24-unit town home project and two 30-unit apartment buildings. That would mean 133 more units expected to be available over the next 17 months.


There's also a strategy under consideration that could be a game-changer. There's talk among city leaders about adding 100 mobile homes and 20 apartment buildings -- with 30 units in each one -- over a 10-year period on a 72-acre site. The first of the units would be available in late 2014, if the City Council approves the idea.

The construction site would be adjacent to an existing mobile home park located within a quarter-mile of Digi-Key and Arctic Cat. A multiuse trail would connect the housing to the city's two biggest employers.

For that development, the city would provide the infrastructure upfront. That's a response to several proposed developments being derailed in recent years because of protests from neighbors opposing zoning changes and "basically saying not in our backyard," said Steve Kruse, city administrator.

City Council members haven't officially committed to that idea yet, but showed enthusiasm for it at a recent work session. A decision will be made in 4-6 weeks, according to Mayor Jim Dagg.

"Developers will still have the same share of costs as before, but we're trying to designate an area to speed up the process and encourage individuals to reinvest in our community," Dagg said. "So many times, we've run into snags where people don't want building in their neighborhood. That's a huge negative effect for developers and for our community.

"I feel pretty confident that we will plow ahead and break some new ground in getting developers to come in and help us out. We haven't seen any resistance, just excitement that the city is doing something more than it did in the past."

Project should help

Northland Community and Technical College also should have on-campus housing by the fall of 2014.


The two-year school has been given permission by state officials to seek proposals from developers to lease Northland property to build housing. According to Steve Crittenden, Northland dean of student development, a project likely would provide 100 to 125 beds in apartment-style housing.

Crittenden said Northland lost at least 40 students last school year because of the shortage. The 100-plus on-campus beds also would free up off-campus housing for workers, he said.

"It's important because barriers for students to attend college include not being able to secure housing and having to commute to school every day," Crittenden said.

Biggest need

Apartments and mobile homes, not single-family homes, fit the biggest housing needs here.

"Mobile homes are good because they're affordable and they can get built quickly," Dagg said.

They also fit the demographic that is seeking living quarters.

"We like all housing, but apartments are more practical for us because when our employees move here, they don't buy right off the bat," said Rick Trontvet, human resources vice-president for Digi-Key. "Rentals are important because they allow workers to get into the community."


Also, most of the available positions are entry-level jobs that pay an annual salary of about $28,500.

"If a husband-wife team comes to work for us, they would have household income that could easily move into an apartment or (mobile home) and could even buy a modest home," said Mark Larson, Digi-Key president.

"The problem is there are no modest homes for sale in Thief River Falls."

Starter shortage

Maryel Anderson of Anderson Realty said Thief River Falls has a sufficient inventory of homes on the market with values of more than $200,000. But there's a woeful shortage of homes under $200,000.

A shortage of affordable housing has lasted at least five years and has become more serious recently, she said.

"I had a woman call me last week, all upset because her son is a professional who has moved to town and he's renting a pit," Anderson said. "I told her that she's preaching to the choir. We get a lot of people crying in our office that they've accepted a job and can't find a place to live.

"We have the same problems for housing as western North Dakota does. It's a good problem to have. But I think we've been talking about a housing shortage for longer than we should have."


Anderson said the city needs to pursue housing and court developers beyond the projects scheduled for 2013 and 2014, citing a 2012 study that concluded the local market could handle 90 more units per year. Her fear is that the major employers will open satellite work locations in other cities because of a worker shortage here.

"I'm especially worried if gas prices go up," she added, noting that commuters to Thief River Falls job sites might find the road miles too expensive.

However, she is optimistic about the plans, especially the city's interest in jump-starting construction by installing infrastructure.

"I've been on housing committees for many years and this is the first real movement I've seen," she said. "I hope they go through with what they're proposing to help developers because having more housing is so vital."

Busing in workers

Digi-Key has taken extraordinary measures to find enough workers. One of its strategies is to have 14 employees riding a company-subsidized bus from Crookston, located 45 miles from Thief River Falls. It will start another bus route in mid-August from Grand Forks, a 55-mile trip, with at least 10 workers.

Those commuters have a 10-hour work day, four days a week, with their shift starting at 11 a.m.

Most out-of-towners, such as 23-year-old Justin Moen of Grand Forks, provide their own transportation for their commute. A recent hire, he too wants to live closer to his Digi-Key job.


"I like the job, but there's nothing here or close to here to live in," Moen said. "The drive is terrible and the gas, even though I get 28 miles per gallon, hurts."

Call Bakken at (701) 780-1125; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1125; or send email to rbakken@gfherald.com .

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