Pelican Rapids confronts housing shortageby Bob Reha, Minnesota Public Radio
Pelican Rapids is like a lot of small towns in rural Minnesota. The community of 2,300 has changed over the years. The biggest change -- the people. The region is attracting retirees and summer residents with lakeside cabins. There are also immigrants, who come for work at the West Central Turkey processing plant. More people can be good for a town. But in Pelican Rapids, the influx of people has created a shortage of housing.
Pelican rapids, Minn. — Finding a place to live in Pelican Rapids can be difficult, especially if you're new to the community. Jeff Boese knows firsthand about that challenge.
Boese is with Lutheran Social Services in Pelican Rapids, and he helps refugees and immigrants find a place to live in the community. The apartment buildings in town are full. In fact, the housing crunch is so intense many of the people arriving can find jobs easier than they can find a place to live.
Jeff Boese says even when an immigrant does find housing, they must stretch their paycheck as far as they can.
"They try to live as cheaply over here, so they can send as much money back over there," says Boese. "A lot of them send a paycheck each and every month back to their families overseas." Boese says it's common for five or six people to live in an apartment meant for one. This worries landlords, who fear overcrowding will damage their property.
It's a problem city officials are well aware of. However, City Administrator Don Solga says the housing problem isn't limited to the city's newest residents.
"We could use a wide range of housing, whether it's low-income housing or middle income, or even high-income units," says Solga.
Once, the economy in Pelican Rapids was dependent on farming; now it's more service oriented. Coffee shops and restaurants have replaced farm equipment and car dealerships on Main Street.
Some of those changes have also made Pelican Rapids a popular spot for retirees and tourists. The lake district in Ottertail County lures people, as do the many regional and state parks.
Pelican Rapids sounds like an ideal place for a building boom, but Solga says finding the land to build homes or rental units is a problem.
"There're some property owners around Pelican Rapids that are using their land for agricultural or other uses," says Solga. "They're just not at a point in their lives where they're ready to develop those properties, or let those properties go for use in developing residential areas."
As a result, new home construction has been at a slow pace.
"We don't have a lot of building going on," says local real estate agent Steve Backstrom. "We typically have a couple new homes every year in Pelican Rapids. That's been kind of the norm for the last, I would say 10 years."
Backstrom says in an average year he'll sell 25 to 30 homes. He says the first wave of immigrants who moved into Pelican Rapids 15-20 years ago have integrated well into the community. Vietnamese and Latino immigrants now own homes and run businesses.
Jeff Boese of Lutheran Social Services says there is a critical difference between the immigrants who arrived in the 1990s and the people coming from Somalia -- for instance, their belief on using credit.
"Any Muslim, it's not in their culture to pay interest, because you shouldn't borrow money to someone else and expect them to pay you back more. So they don't receive interest either," says Boese. "It works both ways, they don't like to pay it or receive it, so a lot of them don't have a checking account either."
City officials in Pelican Rapids are exploring different ways to address the housing problem. City Administrator Don Solga says there are federal programs to help rehabilitate old houses and build new low-income rental properties.
But as the federal deficit grows, money for those programs is drying up.
- All Things Considered, 05/30/2006, 5:35 p.m.