Logan Helton, Helton Homes. Photo by Linda Grismore
“In 1960 the Humeston Commercial Club felt there was a need for senior citizen housing, so they held a meeting and got the ball rolling on it,” began David Gunzenhauser.
The Humeston Commercial Club was a group of Humeston businessmen and the forerunner of the Mormon Trail Chamber.
There were approximately 25 people present at the meeting. They decided they wanted to go forward with the idea, so they elected a board. Knowing they were going to need money to start with, they decided to charge a membership of $20.
“Everybody signed up and the board went to the Farmers Home Administration to apply for a low cost loan,” said Gunzenhauser. “At that time, the government was pushing rural housing.”
Some of the members involved were Charles Humeston, great grandson of the founder of Humeston and owner of Humeston Brothers Grain and Feed. Kenneth Newell, a businessman, Wayne Street, who had an oil business. Rex Williams was Post Master, Art Row was a farmer and Standard Oil dealer. Frosty Richards, who was in the oil business and Don Richards’s father and Harry Marks.
“Harry Marks was the first president and was kind of the instigator of the whole thing,” said Gunzenhauser. “He was really a unique individual and owned the local telephone company in Humeston. He was a hands on kind of guy, so we elected him as president of the association, so he took that and went with it and made sure everything got done.”
Gunzenhauser said Marks and his wife bought some of the lots down by the housing south of the park and donated those to the association so they would have land to build on.
Other businessmen involved were Kenneth Surbaugh who was in the grocery business and Wayne Hutchison had the funeral business and the furniture store.
“For some reason I stumbled in on that meeting and I got a job and have been there every since,” laughed Gunzenhauser.
“We started out building two buildings, which was four units south of the park. A year later we built two more because we had a waiting list.”
Gunzenhauser said there are now seven units south of the park, which are all duplexes and built in the early seventies. Having run out of room to build by the park and with a great need, they built units on 3rd and 5th street, all fourplexes in 1978 and 1980.
“I heard back in those days the people that lived in them took a lot of pride in them,” said LaVerne Tueth.
“Yes, absolutely,” said Gunzenhauser. “For a lot of people it was the best house they had ever lived in.”
“Back then we had a waiting list of 20 to 30 people,” said Gunzenhauser. “There was a real need for it and it really went well during the 80’s and then the government came out with other programs.
“They wanted people to stay in their homes so they came up with this program that allowed people to fix up their homes with a government grant, so we lost some customers there and also our population was declining.”
Gunzenhauser said in the early years they had husband and wives who would retire off the farm and move into the apartments. After the farm crisis in the 80s they didn’t have that many customers anymore.
With 42 units in all and only 27 rented, Gunzenhauser said that is what has caused part of their problems. “We just didn’t have the population to keep them full,” said Gunzenhauser. “We had a higher vacancy rate than we should have had so we couldn’t put back money in the reserve fund to do repairs.”
When the housing was first built, it was senior housing, but in the 80’s they opened it up to any low-income person. Now Gunzenhauser said anybody could rent them if they want to pay the rent.
In 1983 after they had built the last units, Gunzenhauser said the board hired Peggy Gwinn to manage the units. Gwinn remained manager for 27 years until she retired in 2010.
“The USDA was giving more and more rules on what you had to do to maintain eligibility,” said Gunzenhauser. “They required that you had to hire professional management companies and the only ones available were 150 miles away, so you can imagine what kind of management skills you had when you had remote management.”
Gunzenhauser, who has been on the board since day one, is the only surviving original member. “One of the cornerstones of Humeston,” said Tueth.
“Harry Marks was the first president, then Daryl Carter succeeded him, Rex William followed him then Dale Adams and myself,” said Gunzenhauser.
Asked what made them decide to sell the housing, Gunzenhauser said, “Well, as you can see over there they are getting in a run down condition, as we didn’t have any reserve to keep up with repairs. Also we’d had the same board for 20 years and they were getting tired so we thought it was time that if we could find somebody that could own it privately the could manage it better than we could.”
Three years after they put it up for sale Gunzenhauser said Logan Helton, Helton Homes came along and made them an offer.
After commenting that Helton seemed like a go-getter, Gunzenhauser replied, “I am really impressed with him, he wants to be a part of the community. He has been around and talked to all of the tenants, so he is going to have a first name basis with them.”
Helton has some remodeling they will be doing and are currently doing to the buildings. “We didn’t have the money to do that,” said Gunzenhauser. “I think it is a good win situation for everybody. I think Helton will do a good job and I think it will be good for Humeston. I know it sure has started off in the right step!”
Helton said he made an offer over two years ago, but it took that long for Rural Development to get anything done. “My offer was less than the cumulative of all their loans, so it was a short sell,” began Helton. “It took roughly a year for Rural Development to realize it was a short sell so then after that it took about a year and a half to sell it.
“Everybody wanted it sold two years ago, which it would have been nicer two years ago, but here it is.”
Helton and his wife Vicky, who are both 50 percent owners, own Helton Homes.
When asked how Helton Homes started, Helton said, “I have had rental homes for awhile. The first one was an apartment building I planned on moving into. My mother got sick so I never moved into it. When she died I bought her house and lived there. From that first apartment building I just started buying more.”
Helton said the first building he just fell into. It was either pay rent or buy the whole building. “I thought it would be better to buy the whole building, because I was on my feet pretty well.
“I saw the benefit of renting properties. When I saw this place, there was a big benefit, but obviously there is a lot of work to be done too.”
Westward Properties is another company the Helton’s own. “We do everything from roofing to concrete,” said Helton. “We even put in new sewers and we were flipping houses there for awhile on the market when it was a good idea to do, when the market could stand it. That’s how I got into being certified to put in sewers, because it seems like all the new places in the country have to have new sewers.”
With Westward Properties, Helton said they were doing a lot of contracting and then he saw the Humeston Housing, which needs a lot of work and thought it would fit in. They bought it with Helton Homes and the Westward Properties would do all the work.
Helton’s plans are to basically do all the maintenance on the units that have been neglected in the past years. In doing the amount of work they plan on doing, he is in hope it will create enough buzz that it will help them get more of the units rented.
“At the rented level we are right now, it won’t work,” said Helton. “Humeston Housing was in a position it was the chicken or the egg. They didn’t have enough renters so they couldn’t do a lot of the maintenance, but they couldn’t get that influx of work to be done to get there. That’s where I hope from the onset I can do that maintenance that needs to be done and improve them like I am sure Humeston Housing would have wanted to do, have that influx of cash with the hopes that we can get them filled up and make it a good investment.”
Helton said when finished he feels they will be able to rent more of the units than are currently rented, especially if they are nicer and they can get a little bit of good publicity.
Long term he feels that if they take building C and possibly E, which are both interior buildings and make them two units instead of four and making them three bedroom to give an option for renting to small families.
Currently they are in the first phase of remodeling, which is putting new roofs on all the buildings. They are done with all the duplexes and have half of the fourplexes stripped.
“We have replaced siding on the wooden framed duplexes,” said Helton. “We are going to pressure wash all the buildings and repaint them all too.
“On the brick buildings, the white gables and the trim will all be freshly painted after we put the roofs on.”
Courtney Peasley, whom lives next to the housing said, “It is nice to finally see somebody in there that can do something to make changes and improve the buildings.”
Some basic landscaping and sidewalks that need to be re-poured will also be part of phase one. Depending on where they are at financially is when they will decide to remodel the one-bedroom units into three bedrooms. Helton said all the empty apartments need work too and they will keep them up as much as there is a demand for renters. “I think it will make the community as a whole better,” said Helton, “and there will be a little diversity to it too.
“There’s a lot of infrastructure here and I think there is a lot of potential, its just there is a lot of work and it’s in a pretty big hole. If I can do it originally with the original influx of cash and generate some more renters, I think we can keep improving it, which I think is the long-term goal.”
Helton said he feels Humeston has got a lot of things going for it and there are a lot of people that want to see the housing better.
Chariton Valley has contacted him and are willing to help paint the duplexes, which he said is very much appreciated. He has also been talking to them about once they get the roofs and the painting done that possibly he could get a loan from them to do the renovation from the one-bedroom units to the three. “As soon as we get phase one done, I will have to evaluate and see where we are at,” said Helton.
Asked if the name Humeston Housing would remain, Helton said, “No, there is no name, because it’s not a low income housing, it’s not housing, it’s just houses. It is owned by Helton Homes, but it’s not a name.”
Helton said not being a housing authority, they don’t have to do a lot of the things Humeston Housing was burdened with.
“For example, they could only rent to certain people that Rural Development said was okay,” said Helton. “That limited them in a lot of ways, not to mention they had to have a management company because they were responsible to prove the tenants income and how much they should be paying rent.
“None of that is my business anymore, my business is I can rent to whoever I want, whoever I think will fit into the community, whoever I think won’t cause trouble and whoever I would want to rent to, to live next to. Obviously I am fair on how we rent, but I won’t have a lot of the burdens Humeston Housing did.”
Helton said in the next three or four years his goal is to be 95 to 100 percent rented, which he thinks they can do. They can be reached at Helton Homes, located at 501 NW Church St. Suite E, Leon, IA 50144. Phone 641-446-4663 or email email@example.com.
Helton has no plans to move to Humeston as they only live 10 miles away in Leon, but he said, “Just the feeling in the community is awesome. You have people go out of their way to say hi, or go out of their way to say how are you doing and try to help. Everything is appreciated, but basically everybody looking out for each other will make my job easier.
“We will run into problem tenants and we will run into things I will have to address. The more everybody is looking out for each other, the easier it is going to make my job in changing this place from the stigma of a low income certain type of people live there to a nice community that helps out the community of Humeston and is not just an eye sore on 65 like it is right now.
“That’s my goal and I think there is a lot of community investment as far as they want to see it happen like that too, so that will help with a lot of the road blocks I think are going to be in the road. It’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be just a contractor-based approach. We’ll have to talk to the people; we’re going to have to be on the ground. I think we can do it and I think this will be a good place to try to do it.”