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Inside look at Ward 1: Houle, Meehlhause represent different perspectives of ward

BEMIDJI – Ward 1 features a mix of homeowners and renters next to the Bemidji State University campus.

Both candidates running for that seat in Tuesday’s election represent two differing perspectives of that diverse community. Michael Meehlhause, who recently graduated from BSU and rents a house in the area, will face Derrick Houle, a homeowner, in Tuesday’s election.

Michael Meehlhause

In a recent forum, both pointed to their differing ages and perspectives as strengths. Meehlhause was born in 1989, the same year Houle first moved to Bemidji.

While Meehlhause has said he doesn’t want people to mistake his young age for a lack of experience – he dealt with some city issues as a member of the BSU Student Senate – he also recognizes the need to understand the concerns of renters, landlords and homeowners in the area.

“I want to really listen to what the concerns on both sides are,” Meehlhause said in an interview.

He said his youth would provide a good perspective to the city council, and that just because homeowners and tenants come from different perspectives, it “doesn’t mean they both don’t care about the city.”

Derrick Houle

Houle said there have been more rentals popping up in the area over the years. While he doesn’t see that as a bad thing, he said he wants to make sure it doesn’t negatively affect the neighborhood.  

“To me, it’s just about communication,” he said in an interview, adding that a landlord once came to let them know to contact them if there was any issues with their properties.

“We felt empowered by them.”

According to a 2009 city report, more than half of the single-family homes in Ward 1 were registered rentals, while that rate city-wide was about 22 percent. However, that report came out before the wards were redistricted and Ward 1 expanded a few blocks west.

Current Ward 1 Councilor Kevin Waldhausen, who chose not to run for the seat this year, said it’s important to maintain a “healthy mix” of homeowners and rentals in the area. He said one of the reasons he ran in 2008 was because he saw the density of housing in the area begin to shift over to rentals.

“Change is welcome, but it needs to be positive growth,” Waldhausen said. “And that’s something I believe we should have a say in.”

Waldhausen said maintaining that mix includes writing good policy, like the recently amended rental ordinance, which requires more regular rental inspection and implemented a new fee schedule. Waldhausen brought that forward, he said, because some students had issues with landlords not maintaining their properties. Several area landlords were involved in the crafting of that new ordinance.

The ordinance change was recently the subject of some contention between the city and landlords, as some went to conciliation court to request reimbursements for licenses they already had before the new ordinance took effect.

But Kathy Guess, vice president of the Headwaters Landlord Association, said there isn’t necessarily contention with the ordinance itself.

“The goal of the landlords association, as with the city, is to provide safe housing for tenants,” Guess said.

Guess said the candidates got a chance to learn about some of their concerns during a forum that was hosted by the group last week.

“Both of them certainly indicated their willingness to be actively involved and to hopefully meet the same goals that all of us work for,” Guess said. “And that’s for everyone to get along and be cooperative.”

The recent parking problems near the BSU campus was another example of issues between homeowners and those commuting to BSU. Driveways and street corners were often blocked by drivers ignoring parking laws, leading to more regular enforcement and clearly defined no parking zones this fall.

Community members were gathered in a forum to discuss that issue over the summer. Waldhausen said he plans on holding a follow-up meeting in the coming weeks to discuss how the changes are working.

“That was an excellent avenue to get input and ideas from everybody involved and all interested parties,” Waldhausen said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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