Category Archives: Faces of Home

What’s Right for You?


FirstHome program user Teresa Sayler (right) relied heavily on Gena Syvertson (left) of REMAX Legacy Realty to find the right home and negotiate the terms of the sale.

While many young adults wait until they are married or involved in a long-term relationship before pursuing homeownership, Teresa Sayler knew having her own home was what she wanted.

Sayler moved to Fargo, ND, for college and stayed on after graduation. She lived in apartments for a dozen years, a situation that to her always felt temporary. At 30 years of age, Sayler was ready to be grounded.

Turns out while buying on her own was a little nerve racking, “I had to remind myself to take things one step at a time,” Sayler isn’t alone in following that path. After married couples, the National Association of Realtors ranks single women, age 18 to 34, as the second largest home buying group in the United States making up 15 percent or more of the market each year.

“Single females often are heading out of their own at an earlier age to establish their households,” says Jessica Lautz, NAR’s managing director of survey research and communications. Men purchase on their own half as often.

Taking full advantage of available resources helped Sayler ease her solo purchase anxiety. In addition to taking a homebuyer education class, she talked to a financial advisor and took a class focused on budgeting, paying down debt and building savings. Sayler also visited with family and friends to learn about their experiences. When she was confident that she was really ready, Sayler sat down with a lender.

Clayton Lilleby of First Community Credit Union pre-qualified Sayler for North Dakota Housing Finance Agency’s FirstHome™ program and referred her to the person she relied on heavily to find the right home and negotiate the terms of the sale, Gena Syvertson of REMAX Legacy Realty.

A real estate agent for more than a dozen years, Syvertson has a soft spot for first-time buyers. She enjoys educating them, stepping them through the purchase process, and making sure they understand the terms being used. She reminds them to ask questions too so they are comfortable with the decisions they are making.


While Teresa Sayler isn’t afraid of taking on home improvement projects, her real estate agent encouraged her to have a home inspection and include an inspection clause in the purchase agreement so if major repairs were needed, they could be addressed before closing. Doing so gave Sayler peace of mind that her new home would be structurally sound.

“Before looking at any homes,” said Syvertson, “Teresa and I sat down and we talked about home features she really needed versus things she might want to have and what the tradeoffs might be.”

Initially, Sayler wasn’t interested in a twin home, but she knew she wanted an attached garage to better endure North Dakota’s cold winters. A large outdoor space was another priority, so she could have a garden, more privacy, and have friends over to sit around a firepit on summer evenings.

Helping Sayler narrow down her list of must-haves and understand the improvements that could be made after a home was hers really helped. “I only physically looked at about four or five homes before I found one that I made an offer on,” Sayler said.

While Sayler wasn’t afraid of taking on some projects, Syvertson encouraged her to have a home inspection and include an inspection clause in the purchase agreement so if major repairs were needed, they could be addressed before closing. Doing so gave Sayler peace of mind that her new home would be structurally sound.

While Sayler now takes pride in being a homeowner, she’s only talked to a few friends about buying. When the subject comes up, she doesn’t immediately push them into homeownership.

“If they think it’s what they want, I encourage them to educate themselves, to talk to a real estate agent and make sure their finances are in order. Don’t buy a home just because everyone else is. Forget about everything you see on Pinterest, and what your family and friends are saying and doing, is it right for you?”

Managing Affordable Housing

Kit Anderson and Courtney Ritterman of Dakota Commerical.

Kit Anderson and Courtney Ritterman of Dakota Commercial.

With three apartment complexes in Williston, Katherine ‘Kit’ Anderson has her work cut out for her most days.

When Anderson’s not showing one of Dakota Commercial’s 214 units, processing an application or getting a lease signed, she works with the maintenance supervisor to get apartments ready for the next tenants and schedules routine building tasks like fire alarm testing, pest control and snow removal.

Anderson’s passion for her work is obvious even if some days are a bit hectic. “My phone can ring constantly with questions about rental rates, if utilities are included, what amenities are offered and if pets are allowed,” says Anderson.

Because the apartments Anderson oversees are supported by a government subsidy to ensure their affordability, she also gets asked questions that aren’t typical of property management – what happens if my income changes or will my rent change if I change jobs?

Managers of affordable housing are required to verify that applicants are income qualified – having a total household income that does not exceed limits which vary by the program that supported the development by the county in which a property is located, and by the number of household members. They are required to annually recertify tenant income, and report on vacancies and waiting lists. To keep current with affordable housing standards, property managers are also encouraged to regularly participate in affordable housing training.

North Dakota Housing Finance Agency (NDHFA) provided the development support for the properties Anderson oversees and conducts regular inspections to ensure the apartments are safe and decent. Agency staff also reviews tenant files, and audits the properties’ financials to ensure that cash flow is appropriate and that reserves are adequate.

The apartments in Williston aren’t Dakota Commercial’s first experience with affordable housing, the company developed and began managing its first subsidized housing in Grand Forks in 1996.

While getting some prospective tenants to provide the documentation needed to certify that they are qualified for an affordable housing unit can be challenging at times, Courtney Ritterman, Dakota Commercial’s property management executive, says that “Securing a family in housing that they would not have been able to afford without the programs that supported the development of that property is rewarding.”

More than 9,000 apartments across the state are monitored by NDHFA’s staff to ensure that these affordable housing units are in compliance with state and federal program regulations. Many of these apartments are occupied by elderly and disabled households, others by lower-wage workers, none of whom would have a safe and affordable place to call home without the support provided.

For Anderson, who went to work in property management right out of college, housing is something she’s always been interested in. “I’ve always loved the industry,” she said.


Promise of Affordability


Miriam Shaw

A pink rocking chair sways in the breeze on Miriam Shaw’s front porch at ParkRidge Townhomes in Williston’s new Harvest Hills subdivision as she stands at her stove tending to boiling pots. The spacious kitchen is the Jamaican native’s favorite place in her new home and the comfort of knowing it will be affordable for years to come makes everything taste a little sweeter.

Shaw moved into her townhome with her two children shortly after the complex opened in October 2015. “It reminds us of our home back in Georgia,” she said. “It is really nice. We really like it.”

A nurse at Mercy Medical Center’s occupational health clinic in Williston, Shaw moved to town in 2014 following her daughter who had come, like many others, in search of opportunity. She appreciates what the community and state have to offer. “I like Williston. It is small, but I like the open spaces, places to walk and the scenery,” she said. “And I love living here. It is really comfy and just cozy like our [previous] home was.”

Shaw struggled to find a place to live when she first arrived in Williston and lived in several other apartment units which had space and cost challenges before moving into the townhouse community.  ParkRidge Townhomes, developed by Mountain Plains Equity Group, includes 36 units with half of them targeted to Essential Service Workers like Shaw. Rent for the ESWs are restricted and tenants must be below income limits. In addition to medical staff, there are also law enforcement personnel, school employees and county workers who call ParkRidge home.

Shaw said while market rate rents in Williston have fluctuated due to changes in the oil industry, the assurance that her rent will remain affordable was a huge bonus.

“The promise that the price would remain affordable for 15 years is very nice,” she said. “It just gives you comfort in your mind that it will remain. That really is a nice promise because we don’t know what lies around the corner.”

The stability of the rent in Shaw’s unit at ParkRidge comes from its funding through the Housing Incentive Fund. The $7.2 million project received just over $2 million from HIF, administered by the North Dakota Housing Finance Agency. The units must remain at affordable levels for at least 15 years.


Shaw’s townhome has an open-concept with all the amenities she was looking for including a heated attached garage. “That is so nice, to be able to pull in and throw the grocery bags out,” she said. “The layout is nice. We have so much storage; they utilized every inch.”

She also appreciates its convenient location just blocks from the new Williston High School, where her son will attend. “I’m excited to be closer to the school… probably more than he is,” she said. “I’m going to be so happy to have a shorter drive to his school events.”

Shaw who lived and worked as a nurse in New York and Georgia before coming to North Dakota sees herself enjoying more evenings rocking in her pink chair which she hopes to make even more colorful or in her kitchen cooking unique Jamaican fare like jerked chicken and pork, rice and beans in coconut milk, curried goat and spicy fried fish dishes. “It is such a nice place,” she said. “I feel like we are going to be here a while.”

New Home, New Memories


Lisa Macdonald and her son.

In 2002, Lisa and Mark Macdonald built their dream home just south of Bismarck. It was a larger home with a big yard. They loved their neighborhood and being close to an elementary school for their two children who were four and seven years old at the time.

After many happy years, the family’s life was turned upside down when Mark unexpectedly passed away in 2014.

“After my husband passed away, we lost our main source of income,” Macdonald said.

Knowing that the size and cost of maintaining a large home would be difficult without Mark, Lisa’s family encouraged her to sell the house. She agreed and put the home on the market not long after Mark’s death. However after months of contracts falling through, Lisa was discouraged and decided to contact Debby Wisdom at Dakota Community Bank to refinance in hopes of reducing monthly expenses.

“My kids weren’t ready to move and I was tired of having the house on the market,” Macdonald said.

Over the winter, Lisa thought more about selling the house. She knew she couldn’t afford it on her own and was worried about keeping up the yard without Mark.

In the spring, with her children’s blessing, the Macdonald home again went on the market and Lisa went back to Dakota Community Bank to prequalify for a loan to purchase a smaller place. This time, the house sold within four days and Lisa found a new home that same weekend.

“I knew Lisa through helping her with refinancing,” Wisdom said. “She wanted to find a smaller home with a more manageable yard. I went over some financing options with her and HomeAccess was a really good fit. Whenever I’m working with a single parent, my immediate thought is HomeAccess.”

With the help of lending partners statewide, North Dakota Housing Finance Agency, provides affordable home financing to low- to moderate-income families.  While NDHFA’s FirstHome™ program is specifically for those who have never owned a home, the HomeAccess program was created in 2006 to provide reduced interest rate loans to single-parent, veteran, disabled or elderly households who were previous homeowners.

Borrowers who use the HomeAccess program must meet the same income standards as FirstHome and the purchase price of the home must be within program limits.  Borrowers also have to meet normal credit underwriting standards and occupy the home as their principal residence.

This summer, Lisa’s daughter went off to college while Lisa and her son moved into the new house. It still provides plenty of room for everyone to be together, but it will be more manageable for Lisa on her own.

“My favorite thing about my new home is that I know this is going to be where my grandchildren are going to visit me years from now,” Macdonald said.  “There were so many bittersweet memories in our old house. Here I feel like we can move on as a family and make great new memories.”



Grateful for My Home

Jeri Frick

Jeri Frick

When Jeri Fick first learned she would be able to move into the new North Sky Apartments in Fargo’s Urban Plains neighborhood in the southwest part of town, she cried.

“I just get very emotional thinking about it because I am so appreciative,” she said. “I don’t know how people would be able to do it without assistance like this.”

The first phase of North Sky Apartments opened in Fall 2014 and Jeri moved with her assistance dog, Molly, into her one-bedroom unit in January 2015 after living at another market-rate apartment complex in the community.

“It just got to be too expensive,” she said. “I couldn’t afford it anymore. It got to the point where I didn’t know if I was going to be homeless.”

That’s what made her North Sky apartment so special to her. “I can actually have a life,” she said. “I can afford my rent and still go to a movie if I want to now. Before, all of my money was going to pay rent.”

She also appreciates the sense of community in the 55+ apartment complex. “I am meeting new friends and we’re like a family; we watch out for each other,” Fick said. “I enjoy baking brownies and things and taking them to my new neighbors. Everyone has just been so great.”

And Fick says she is looking forward to the “family” extending. The second phase of North Sky opened in September 2015 with a third phase breaking ground at the same time. In total, the project will have 84 units all targeted to seniors.

North Sky Apartments in Fargo, ND.

North Sky Apartments in Fargo, ND.

The $11.65 million project was funded by a number of state and federal programs including the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, HOME Investment Partnerships Program, Low Income Housing Tax Credits and the North Dakota Housing Incentive Fund. In all, those programs brought $10.1 million in funding. The Fargo Housing and Redevelopment Authority, which manages the project, also placed project-based rental assistance vouchers on some of the units in North Sky I and plans to do the same in the other phases.

“It is a challenge for Fargo seniors to find housing that is affordable and every year that population increases,” said Beyond Shelter Inc. CEO Dan Madler. “Without multiple layers of support, our organization would not be able to keep a project’s rents at such reasonable levels.”

It is the reasonable rents that help Fick and other seniors like her. “I don’t know how people would do it without help like this,” she said. “It makes me kind of sad that these buildings are all full because I know there are a lot of other people who need affordable apartments. Where would they go if this wasn’t here?”

Fick, while working part time at Sam’s Club, relies almost entirely on her Social Security disability check. “When you have a disability, there is no way you could live anywhere on just Social Security,” she said. “I am just so grateful for my home. I can’t express how grateful I am.

“I wake up in the mornings and just look around in amazement. It is gorgeous. Everything is new and I’m just so proud,” she said. “It is a blessing from God – it truly is a blessing.”

And for Fick, who grew up in Hope, ND, and moved to Fargo in 1977 and raised a daughter there, North Sky is more than just a place to live. “It’s my home. It’s not my ‘apartment’ – it’s my home,” she said. “I can afford living in my home.”

Roots Makes Homeownership Easier

The apartment life that made sense when they first moved in together had lost its charm for Jacob Kienzle and Brita Bostad. They wanted a quiet place of their own where the monthly payment could be an investment into their future.

“At first, the process was daunting. There were so many factors to consider and the buying market was really competitive,” said Kienzle.

It wasn’t helping that the combined salaries of the couple, both teachers in their mid-twenties, put them over the $72,100 program income limit in Cass County for the purchase assistance available through North Dakota Housing Finance Agency’s (NDHFA) FirstHome™ program.


Peter Johnson of Western State Bank with Jacob and Brita.

After 10 years as a mortgage lender, Peter Johnson of Western State Bank has had more and more encounters with borrowers like Kienzle and Bostad who are eager to become homeowners, but who have limited resources. He encourages these buyers to learn about home financing and credit reports so they are ready when a suitable home in their price range becomes available.

Kienzle and Bostad were prepared, but after searching for a couple months, they were getting a bit frustrated. A phone call from Johnson changed everything. Thanks to new eligibility rules for NDHFA’s North Dakota Roots program, now Kienzle and Bostad could receive a reduced interest rate mortgage loan, and down payment and closing cost assistance.

In July 2014, the North Dakota Industrial Commission approved a change to the North Dakota Roots program that allowed any North Dakota household earning up to 140 percent of the area median income, $97,440 to $110,600 depending on the county where a financed home is located, to qualify for purchase assistance from NDHFA.

“Jacob and Brita were ecstatic,” Johnson said. “It was a lot of pressure to come up with the standard down payment and closing costs. The Roots program helped tremendously.”

Helping more families was exactly the point of the changes.

“Income levels and home prices in North Dakota have increased faster than our standard program limit calculations which are based on five-year and statewide averages,” said Dave Flohr, NDHFA homeownership division director. “The result is that many interested homebuyers, despite a need for assistance, couldn’t qualify because the program limits weren’t reflective of the state’s reality.”

Kienzle and Bostad just appreciate the little bit of help they needed to achieve their goal.

“We were really excited. It definitely made the purchase easier for us,” said Kienzle. “This program helped us buy our home and gave us room to breathe. Now we have a place to invest in and enjoy.”

The North Dakota Roots program was originally launched in 2002 to encourage new state residents to establish themselves in North Dakota. To qualify for the program, borrowers were required to have lived out of the state at least one year before establishing residency; to work at least 20 hours per week; and purchase a home within the first year of employment in the state.

Unfortunately, with the economy depressed in other parts of the United States, many families moving to North Dakota aren’t able to make a purchase right away even if they want to be homeowners.

Western State Bank’s Kristy Brink has worked in mortgage lending for more than 30 years and sympathizes with all the changes that households must adjust to when they move across the country for work – new schools, doctors, churches… everything – and often with no local support from family or friends.


Kristy Brink of Western State Bank.

“People come to me because they want to buy a home, and it’s great if I can pre-qualify them right away,” says Brink. “But sometimes it’s just not possible if the customer has had to leave an economically depressed area and had to ‘short sale’ their home, so we make a plan.”

Brink makes sure the buyers understand the guidelines and programs that are in place for their particular situation, and she lets them know when they can actively shop for a home. She also advises them to get to know the area, the neighborhoods, and try to decide what their preferences will be when they are able to buy.

While it may not sound like it at first, James and Dana Butler are among the more fortunate new state residents. According to Brink, many households in a depressed market can’t afford to move or if they do, they end up spending all their money to relocate and don’t have anything left for a down payment on a new home.

When the economic downturn found the Butlers struggling to afford the mortgage on their home in Washington state, they tried to sell the house. Six months in, James found work in North Dakota. He packed his bags shortly before Christmas and left Dana and their two children behind to continue the home sale battle. In June, after the house was on the market for a year, the Butlers relented and leased it out. Dana, eight-year old Simon and five-year old Penny were able to join James in North Dakota.

Because James is a veteran, the Butlers were able to get purchase assistance from the Veterans Administration. Coupled with a North Dakota Roots loan, they ended up paying nothing out of pocket.

The Butler family is now settled in a home in north Fargo, and according to Dana Butler, they are enjoying their new life.

“Although very different from the west coast, my family and I enjoy the many qualities the state of North Dakota has to offer,” says Butler. “It’s a very clean, friendly and safe state that has given us opportunities we wouldn’t have had in Washington state.”

The Butler family and the Kienzle/Bostad household aren’t the only households that have taken advantage of the updated Roots program. The less restrictive program policies increased interest more than fifteen fold over the final five months of 2014.

“I can’t say enough about how fortunate our state is to have NDHFA and the programs they provide,” said Brink. “From the first-time homebuyer programs, to renovation programs, to North Dakota Roots, NDHFA helps me help my customers and for that I am grateful.”

Through a network of lending and real estate partners, NDHFA provides low-cost financing, down payment and closing cost assistance, and supports homebuyer education. Western State Bank is one of approximately 40 lenders that originate loans on behalf of NDHFA. Once the loans are closed, they are sold to the agency. To date, almost 40,000 North Dakota households have achieved their homeownership dreams with the agency’s support.

The homeownership program limits quoted in this article are for fiscal year 2014. See for the current program limits.