This profile is really special to me. Not only is Courtney one of my very best friends, we were roommates in the Giant Green Hippie Barn. Courtney has also been a solid advocate for housing and folks experiencing homelessness in the Twin Ports. So when we interviewed, she said things like eminent domain and I had no idea what that meant and had to look it up when she went home. (It means the right of a government or its agent to expropriate private property for public use, with payment of compensation. Learning something new every day!) In addition to being a community organizer, Courtney is an adjunct professor at a local college and is a wonderful seamstress. She’s 26 years old and her Duluth rental story spans eight years with six different units (seven if you count a storage unit.)
You may remember my info regarding the Green Hippie Barn. It was cheap ($375/mo) and housed six people. It had recently been condemned and just barely brought back up to code. The heating was so funky that the south side of the house roommates all slept in t-shirts and shorts, while the north side (Courtney and I) rocked long-johns, had incredibly thick blankets, and couldn’t leave coffee mugs near the windows because they would freeze. But, hey, cheap rent. There were also these terrible poodles who lived next door. We all hated them.
Along her rental journey, Courtney has had some big time troubles. One landlord would police guests and refused to remove previous tenant furniture. It had those weird beetle bugs, a laundry room where the door was frozen shut, and cost 50% of her monthly income. The next apartment was beautiful and really expensive. Not only did the rent prove to be a huge financial burden, but due to bad lease timing, she had to pay double rent for a month. It irks me this happened because I know Courtney and I know she is good at getting details in order. It was just a big flaw in the system that really screwed her over. Much like her next apartment.
Because of the expensive former apartment, Courtney decided to move in with a couple to try to save some money. It was a literal nightmare (her words.) It was month-to-month, cheap, but it seemed the couple was not willing to really share the space and Courtney felt like a stranger in a place she was supposed to call home. But the worst part happened even before she could move in.
“A week before move-in I was told the other tenant needed another week or so on her lease. I was left moving my stuff into storage and scrambling for places to stay. I found a friend that let me stay for a few nights, but knew that my friends all had minimal space. I was so embarrassed. I was employed full-time at a homeless shelter and I was set to be homeless for two weeks. I pretended it was intentional and used all my vacation time, packed my car with essentials from storage and set out on a nine-day solo backpacking trip across the UP. The trip was awesome and almost made me forget that it was out of necessity. After the trip I stayed with my brother in Ashland for a few nights while I waited to have a place to live. This living situation continued this trend and became more-and more-toxic and it was clear that I needed to move and began the housing search about two weeks after I moved in. It took me two months to find a place I could afford.”
Courtney currently lives in a studio apartment in the Park Point neighborhood. There’s off-street parking, storage, on-site laundry, and a backyard that is Lake Superior! Her rent is $510/mo plus utilities and internet which is about 40% of her monthly budget. In Courtney’s mind, this seems to be a decent deal. Knowing a lot about housing, she told me it’s recommended that housing comes in around 30% of a person’s monthly budget. When I asked if paying 40% felt like too much, Courtney responded with, “not really. I know people who are paying close to 50% of their budget a month on housing alone. I have always kept two jobs while living in Duluth and always worked way more than full-time. I am obsessed with budgeting (probably because I have to be) and live simply with few expenses.”
Her renting history has been pretty rough. I asked what her feelings surrounding renting in Duluth I got a response that sounded a lot like, “mehhhhh.” Courtney is so happy in her cute wee box that is well maintained and up to code. Often she wonders if the fact her landlord lives in a suburbs of the Cities has anything to do with it being such a great rental. There is no influence of Duluth landlord culture on him and maybe just doesn’t know what other property managers are doing. Vacancy rates are so low and it seems many landlords have just given up on providing decent, affordable living spaces because they honestly don’t have to. No one is going to make too much of a fuss because they are afraid of losing their home. Even if the place resembles a flaming garbage pile, if the price is right, it will be rented. No doubt.
When these new developments spring up, Courtney has no faith in them. “They’re going to sit empty and be a waste of resources. No one I know is living in these places. Who lives there? Not even doctors rent these homes.” Mixed income housing is needed. Courtney believes they are the first step to ending the class and income segregation that has developed in Duluth. The poor people shouldn’t have to be regulated to one side while the rich get to find wherever they want to live. (But, to be honest, the rich are probably buying their own property.) We as a city can’t just pretend we have economic stability when most of our friends are busting-ass at two jobs just to meet basic needs.
Renting in Duluth can be rough. Some landlords can be flexible with unavoidable life circumstances, but some prove to be very difficult. Roommates can be a great way to relieve the financial stress, but people are people and sometimes things don’t work. People get new jobs, or relationships, or can financially support themselves and then what? Back on the hunt. Try again. Hope it works better this time. I think this city needs apartments that people know will be accessible for them because the uncertainty of housing can cause incredible amounts of anxiety.
Courtney, like many others including myself, got a lucky break. When that happens, we cling on to it for dear life. The thing is, we stay in Duluth because we love it. Courtney spends all of her time on Lake Superior. She’s worked damn hard to remain in Duluth and she adds so much to the community that it would be a huge loss if she were to leave.
If you’d like to share your Duluth renting story with me, get in touch! I’d love to hear from you.