The Voice: Winter 2001

The Voice

Dordt and community work together on Hispanic housing issue

by Sally Jongsma

Dordt College has received attention in regional news media recently, but not for any new academic programs. At issue is the relocating of residents living in a trailer park owned by the college. While the situation hasn't always been without stress, it has given the college and the community an opportunity to work together at living their Christian principles.

The trailer park in question is just east of campus and was purchased by Dordt College in 1987. Since most of the campus is surrounded by homes, this purchase presented a way for the college to expand its facilities as enrollment grew.

Covenant Hall, built in 1997, was the first new building to require space occupied by the trailer park. Since Dordt has always tried to work with and for the community, college officials tried to go beyond the legal requirement of giving sixty days notice, giving residents eight months to find new housing arrangements. The college offered some financial assistance to residents in these first trailers to move and worked closely with local developers to add sites to a second, smaller trailer park in town. Construction on the new building was delayed until the new sites were ready, to make sure the residents had a place to go.

Once the expanded trailer park was in place, the board of trustees decided at its April 1998 meeting to set July of 2000, more than two years later, as the date for the rest of the trailers to be out of the park.

But low-cost housing can be hard to find in Northwest Iowa, and an influx of many Hispanic families to the community in the past couple of years led to an increased demand for such housing. Because the park Dordt owned contained several older trailers that were relatively inexpensive, and because Dordt charged relatively low rent, the trailers were filled as quickly as families moved out. Some say that new owners, who were not fluent in English and arrived after the first letters were sent, did not know when they moved into them that the trailers had to be removed by July 2000. The new residents established a welcoming and supportive community for others who came from their home towns in Mexico. Many people and churches in Sioux Center also welcomed the new families, organizing and providing services to help them settle into the community. But they depended on their park neighbors for support and friendship. As the deadline drew nearer, several residents hoped to find a place where most of them could move together.

Today, although most of the seventy trailers have been moved, about ten remain, all of them occupied by Hispanic residents. They remain because a community option they hoped would work out did not. They are renewing their search.

Although Dordt has tried to be a compassionate landlord, it is the Siouxland Diaconal Conference, working with the encouragement of the college, that has done the legwork of helping the families find new places to live. Within the community, individual churches have committed to helping individual families relocate. But the issues are complex. Some of the trailers are old and greatly depreciated, to the point that they would be hard to move even if parks would accept them in their present condition. Add to that the scarcity of low- cost housing in the region and the fact that most of these families want to stay together to help each other with things like child care, and the situation becomes even more difficult. In addition, they are not eager to leave Sioux Center, where the community and the schools have provided services to help them adjust to living in the United States.

“Enough housing is probably available throughout the region, but not all in one place,” says Arlan Nederhoff, Dordt's vice president for business affairs. “People need community in which to feel comfortable. This lack of low-cost housing has brought up a whole set of issues that the community needs to address.”

Despite the urgency of the issues and the difficulties and upheaval in people's lives over the past several months, both Dordt and the trailer park residents remain positive about working with each other.

“They would like to continue having Dordt College as their landlord, and, if we were running a trailer park, we would like to have them as residents,” says Dr. Carl Zylstra, Dordt's president. “The media had trouble finding anyone who would say anything negative about the college when they were reporting the story,” he adds.

Despite and maybe because the college learned from some early miscommunications due to language barriers, Zylstra says Dordt has been committed to giving people as much lead time as possible to find a new location. Zylstra has also committed to dealing with people personally, not just through letters even though those letters are now in both Spanish and English.

Last year, Rev. Tom Soerens, who was Zylstra's assistant and is fluent in Spanish and familiar with Hispanic culture, worked one-on-one with individual families to make sure they understood the situation and to help find housing options for them. Dordt alum Rick Droog ('90), the director of the diaconal conference, has also spent hours and months pursuing leads and exploring options.

Although some may criticize Dordt for not enforcing its July 2000 deadline, Zylstra says that was done because they hoped all of the residents could move together by October to another park that needed some development. After that possibility fell through, the college, aware of two more possibilities for most of the group to stay together, agreed to let them remain through the winter until May 1. However, if the group arrangement does not materialize by February 1, residents will have to pursue individual housing options, possibly in different small communities in the area.

Although the situation has been difficult, it has also had its good aspects, say both Zylstra and Nederhoff. The interaction between Dordt and the Hispanic families has been good.

“It's given the college the opportunity to learn some things about diversity first hand,” says Nederhoff. Beyond Dordt, it has energized local churches to help these new families and has helped forge a good working relationship between Dordt and the Siouxland Diaconal Conference.

“The whole situation makes you question your values as a Christian and make some hard choices about how to act in accord with your beliefs,” says Nederhoff. He acknowledges that being a landlord is more complex than just enforcing certain rules when you are aware that people's livelihoods are at stake.

Zylstra hopes that despite the difficulties, the good relationships that developed with residents will add a healthy diversity to the community.

“It's shown us that colleges are not very well equipped to be both landlords and educators,” he says. But he also believes that because the Hispanic residents want to be here and because many in the community want them to stay, a good environment exists in which to work together at a solution to this problem and others that may arise. Zylstra's thoughts go even further. He hopes that Dordt College will be able to build the kind of relationships with the Hispanic community in the area that will lead Hispanic young people to consider Dordt College a college they would attend.

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