Finding housing a struggle in Sanpete

Just about everyone in the market for a home in Sanpete County right now is struggling to find suitable housing, either because both rental housing and homes for purchase are in such short supply, or because prices have skyrocketed.

Tosha Nielsen, her husband Scott Kiefer, and their seven children ages 9 to 20, enjoyed living in a 2,600 square-foot house in Mt. Pleasant with over half an acre. It had five bedrooms. They started out paying $550 per month and were paying $750 per month after five years. Utilities were a couple hundred dollars more.

But in September, they had to move. The owners wanted to sell the house. The Nielsen-Kiefer family didn’t want to buy—they were (and still are) building a modular home in Redmond.

But completion of the home in Redmond is six to nine months out. So the family had to relocate to an 800-square-foot, two-bedroom duplex in Ephraim. Despite being 31 percent of the square footage of the family’s previous place, the rent was $800 per month (plus $130 in utilities).

The family has four storage units and two triple bunk beds besides a king-size bed in the second bedroom. One child sleeps on the couch, Nielsen said.

Then there’s the issue of Nielsen’s mother having been diagnosed with Stage-4 cervical cancer in November. Nielsen now goes to Cedar City or St. George every two to three days to take her mother to appointments.

That’s besides taking her children to school in Mt. Pleasant and Moroni every day, driving to Redmond to care for their horses, and driving to Mt. Pleasant to help her grandmother and work at her job.

“I’m never home. Like literally, never home,” Nielsen said. “So finding a place where I can bring my mom and be more settled and have more access to school would alleviate…stress from my life.”

“It’s just crazy because money isn’t an issue,” Nielsen said. “We’re not bound to one town and can rent anywhere from Sanpete County to North Sevier County.” They just haven’t been able to find anything.

Nielsen said what probably should be characterized as a housing crisis is affecting many people. “And it doesn’t seem like anyone cares to look out for their neighbors,” Nielsen said. “It’s just sad to see.”

Levi Hojara has been renting a room in a house occupied by a family with six children. He needs to move because he’s getting married. Morning, afternoon and night, every day for the past five months, he’s looked for housing

Hojara, 21, has been renting the single room for nearly three years. The family is understanding because it took them more than a year themselves to find a house.

“They’re good people,” Hojara said.

The places in Ephraim are nearly entirely for students only, “so unless you go to Snow College, there’s almost nothing there,” Hojara said.

Since Hojara makes $12 per hour, he can’t afford an apartment that rents for $850-per-month—before utilities.

When Hojara started out renting from the family, he was paying $400 per month, but COVID-19 made it so the family needed to charge him $600. Hojara does save on food since the mother in the family cooks for him.

Hojara wants to stay in the area and is optimistic that there will be openings because the semester is ending at Snow College.

“Home prices have gone up 50 to 60 percent across the board in the past two years,” Gunnison realtor Robert Childs said. “A typical starter home with three-bedrooms and two baths is pushing $300,000 across the board.”

“We’re looking at a lot of homes that are $140 to $170 a square foot right now,” Childs said.

Kris Jorgenson, owner of the Security National Mortgage franchise in Ephraim, said that from 2019 to 2021, the cost of that hypothetical three-bedroom, two-bath house increased by $100,000, Jorgenson said.

Will and Loyann Christensen run Oak Creek Apartments, a complex where low-income tenants can receive rent subsidies from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). A limited number of people qualify to live there. The waiting time is about four months.  “A lot of people that we have in this apartment have been here several years,” Loyann said.

“They really do need to have more houses in Ephraim because of the college,” Loyann said. “We have calls daily for places to live.”

Amy Hansen, manager of Park Place Apartments, a large student housing complex east of 400 East in Ephraim. A couple of years ago, she said  there was a surplus of student housing in Ephraim, so she opened up units normally occupied by students for family housing. If she does that again, a three-bedroom, three-bathroom apartment will run for $1,050 per month.

One of the biggest things that is driving the market in the county is “the lack of inventory,” Childs said.

“Because people have not much to choose from, they basically take what’s there and pay what they have to pay to [get] it,” Childs said.

As of Monday, only 29 homes were available for sale in Sanpete County, Childs said.

Kris Jorgenson, owner of the local Security National Mortgage office, said that the minimum FICO score a first-time home buyer would need to qualify for that hypothetical three-bedroom, two-bath house is 620. The income the buyer would need depends on his or her  debt—if the person has student loans or a car loan, for instance..

Jorgenson described the housing market as “a roller-coaster ride.” At the end of 2019, the market “hit the peak of the perfect place for financing,” he said.

But then in 2020, COVID-19 hit. The effects of the pandemic raised interest rates.

“Now in 2021, you have interest rates increasing and … the cost of materials skyrocketing, (and) rates (are) on a steady climb,” Jorgenson said. “That is going to slow the market and make it harder to qualify.”