Couple moving out of garage on heels of city ordinance

Becky Johnson, pictured in front of her garage at 1205 15th Ave. N. in Princeton, where her sister and sister’s boyfriend have been staying for more than a year.

Even without the new city ordinance passed last month, the woman and her boyfriend who have been living in the detached, two-stall garage at 1205 N. 15th Ave. in Princeton for more than a year, were preparing to move out.

The city council passed an ordinance on Jan. 26 which prohibits people from living in garages or accessory buildings. The only exceptions are a few living spaces that had been built or remodeled above some garages some time ago to make so-called mother-in-law quarters.

The woman who has been living in the garage is in her late 40s and is a sister of the property owner – Becky Johnson – who lives in the house next to the garage.

Johnson and her daughter Katie were interviewed regarding the situation and Johnson’s sister talked to the Union-Eagle by phone. Johnson’s sister and her boyfriend declined to have their names given.

Princeton Police Chief Brian Payne served notice to Johnson on Feb. 2 that she had until the end of the month to correct the situation.

The embryo of the new ordinance began forming more than a month ago when Princeton City Development Director Carie Fuhrman reported in December having received reports that people might be living in garages on the north and south ends of the city.

Garage couple down on luck

The situation with the couple in the garage is that the boyfriend was underemployed for awhile when he was working part-time at a convenience store, Johnson said. He quit that job to look for full-time employment. Then Johnson’s sister slipped on ice and hurt her back during the winter of 2010-11 and was out of work for six months.

The sister said she had some help through short- and long-term disability insurance through her job but that it was only 60 percent of what her wages had been. It wasn’t enough to be able to afford an apartment and it wasn’t low enough to qualify for county assistance, she noted. Would the community have been happy if she had to go on public assistance? she asked.

“I’m not a vagrant, not a bag lady,” she continued, adding that she didn’t think anyone was doing anything wrong by her and her boyfriend staying in the garage until they could afford to move into something else.”

“It was not meant to be a forever fix,” said Johnson, noting that the sister had been living in a motor home in the backyard starting in the spring of 2010 until it began getting too cold in the fall of that year. Johnson then had the garage insulated, sheetrocked and a propane gas furnace put in for the sister and boyfriend to move in there in about November 2010.

Then in December 2010, Johnson’s sister slipped on ice and injured her back, had back surgery about a month later and was on medical leave from her job at an optical factory in the St. Cloud area. In midyear last year she was able to go back to her job and her boyfriend got a job with the same business. The full-time employment for both has made their financial situation good enough that they set yesterday (Wednesday, Feb. 15) as the day to move out of the garage.

Johnson and daughter Katie noted that the garage’s propane furnace has a carbon monoxide (CO) detector, plus a safety shutoff, and the garage has a second CO detector.

Although the garage does not have running water, it has electricity and the main house has the bathroom. The garage was also equipped with a countertop, kitchen table, refrigerator, cupboards, two couches, a bed, Internet, TV with cable and a side window large enough to exit, according to Johnson.

“I didn’t just stuff her into the garage,” Johnson said of her sister. “It was comfy for her, for them.”

“I’m not proud of the fact I’m living in my sister’s garage,” the sister said. “It’s a necessity issue.”

Johnson said she felt Payne was accommodating in how he served the notice to enforce the new ordinance. But she and her sister said they were unhappy that the city hadn’t contacted the two to check out the garage and situation before passing the ordinance.

“I’ve lived here for 21 years and I would have expected the city or police to contact me before reading about it (the new ordinance) in the paper,” Johnson said. “I was shocked. I was not hurting anyone. I was helping my family and I had the means to do it. From my sister’s point of view, she wasn’t happy. It was demeaning for her to move into the garage.”

Johnson also said she doesn’t believe that whoever reported the garage being a possible residence was doing it out of safety concern, but that it was “malicious.” The sister said they should have minded their own business.

The sister is leaving the garage with deep gratitude for Johnson having provided the garage as living quarters.

“She has angelic wings,” she said of Johnson. “She is an angelic sister.”

“We were just doing what we can to survive,” the sister said.