(Connie Jo Discoe/McCook Daily Gazette)
Barb Ostrum, community service coordinator of the McCook office of Community Action Partnership of Mid-Nebraska, asked Red Willow County commissioners to consider the plight of seven more families looking for rental housing if the county purchases and then demolishes the two two-story apartment houses at 520 Norris as the county makes way for the possible construction of a jail north of the courthouse.
The county purchased the two-story apartment house at 524 Norris in December 2009. Five families had to find other housing when commissioners declined to get the county into the rental business. Commissioners got no takers when they offered the house for sale to be moved off the lot. It was eventually torn down.
"The lack of rental property in McCook is at an all-time high," Ostrum said. "The supply of rental stock in McCook is so desperate, I've found squatters. We've had a mother with two young children living in their car in Karrer Park. We have several working young men living in their cars -- all because they can't find places to rent."
Ostrum continued, "I'm really, really concerned. And now there are going to be another seven families looking for places to live."
Ostrum said, "There are lots of good people who can't find a place to live. Lots of these people have jobs -- they just can't find (affordable) rental housing."
Ostrum told commissioners she is especially concerned about those trying to live in their cars. "The weather's a big concern," she said. "It's getting chilly." Commissioner Steve Downer added, " ... go to sleep with your car running, you might wake up dead."
Ostrum said the desperate and frustrating rental situation in McCook started when St. Catherine's Apartments closed two years ago in December, and 28 families found themselves looking for other rental housing. "We've never recouped from that," Ostrum told commissioners.
Ostrum said she knows that houses for sale are sometimes made available for rent, "but not everyone wants to become a landlord, for whatever reason." Even many of the mobile homes in McCook are on a rent-to-own basis, which is not in the futures or are beyond the finances of renters, she said. There is little, if any, federal funding for purchase-rehab-rent properties, she said.
Ostrum said that nothing has been built for renters in McCook for about 10 years. The East Ward Village project, which will provide 15 one- and two-bedroom low-income housing units for seniors and six duplexes and six garages, is in the works and isn't an immediate solution, she said. Even then, those units won't be available to young singles, couples or families. They may, however, open up houses when seniors move into the East Ward units, Ostrum said.
The rental inventory in Culbertson and Indianola are also tight, Ostrum said. Anything beyond those two communities, and the high cost of gas and a trustworthy vehicle become additional drains on a family's budget, she said.
Ostrum admitted she doesn't have the answers. She told commissioners, "I'm frustrated. There are people moving into places that are not safe, not decent, barely meeting minimum standards. But they're desperate."
Anyone with rental property is encouraged to contact Ostrum at (308) 345-1187.