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'Don't sell your house' takes new meaning for former Lordstown GM workers

Employees who once worked at the now-shuttered GM Lordstown Assembly Complex are facing increasingly difficult housing situations.

LORDSTOWN — Darren Bodak’s voice broke when he explained that accepting a job transfer to Bowling Green, Ky. would separate him from his family. 

The GM employee stood outside the Lordstown facility last month as he explained that he leaves behind his wife, two teenage daughters and an aging father, whom he cares for. 

“I try not to think about it, because it’s very emotional,” Bodak said, holding back tears.

President Donald Trump famously told Youngstown residents not to sell their homes during a July 2017 Covelli Centre speech.

"Those jobs have left Ohio. They're all coming back. ... Don't move. Don't sell your house," he said.

Although GM Lordstown has since closed, many still haven’t sold their homes.

Bodak is one of the GM employees who leaves a family behind to continue working. His wife and daughters will stay in their home in Struthers while he rents an apartment with a friend in Bowling Green.

The experience of Youngstown area real estate agents reflects this trend. 

“The younger ones are going to pick up and move. The ones [who] have kids in middle school and high school seem to be commuting,” said Jerri Florio, president of the Youngstown Columbiana Association of Realtors.

IMPACT IN OTHER COMMUNITIES

Melissa Henry, a property manager near the GM complex in Bowling Green, has noted the influx of demand for rental properties. 

“On a typical month prior to the transfers, I would sign anywhere between seven to 12 new leases every month,” Henry said.  “Since they have been transferring I’ve done anywhere between 19 to 25 new leases a month.”

This arrangement avoids completely uprooting families, but it comes at a cost. Workers now must balance rental payments and their ongoing mortgages. 

Henry said that apartments in her complex range in price from $785 for a one-bedroom apartment to $1,070 for a three-bedroom unit.

That cost was already a stretch on workers' budgets before GM workers went on strike Sept. 15. Now, covering those costs could be impossible. 

The 46,000 unionized GM workers on strike across the United States earn $250 in strike pay per week. If the strike continues — and there's no quick end in sight — Bodak’s monthly wages won’t cover his housing costs. So far, his landlord has been lenient. 

Dan Santangelo, who transferred to a plant in Bedford, Ind., is in the same boat. 

He lives in Bedford with a former Lordstown coworker. 

“It’s good, it helps living with someone going through the same thing I am. We’re supporting each other. He left behind a wife and three kids. His oldest is 16,” Santangelo said. 

RETURNING HOME TO PICKET

Santangelo often drives back to Lordstown to picket. There, he stands in the median of the street that wraps around the plant, holding a sign and encouraging trucks to honk in support of the workers. 

Why?

“This is where I started," he said. "I’m a second-generation autoworker.”

Theresa McKnight drove 10 hours from her new home in Missouri to do the same. 

“This is my home,” she explained. McKnight moved to “Misery,” as she calls it, in May, but has returned home for the birthdays of her two grandchildren. 

When Jason Markovich told his father about his forced transfer from GM Lordstown to the Corvette plant in Bowling Green, Ky., he overheard sniffling from the next room. 

His 16-year-old son was crying. 

Markovich is a single father caring for a son with Asperger’s and an aging father. Uprooting his life is not an option.  

“The first ticket I can get out of there, I’m taking it,” Markovich said of Bowling Green. “I’ve got too much here; too many roots here.”

As they shack up with friends in an effort to save money, former Lordstown employees are bringing Youngstown with them in the form of food and football fandom. 

“I bring homemade dried sausage. I bring homemade sauce down there. I have my spaghetti and meatballs every Sunday, I’m Italian,” said Santangelo. 

“We have Little Lordstown,” said Markovich. 

The ties to Lordstown that thrive in places like Bowling Green and Bedford ease some of Bodak’s anxiety about leaving his home and his family. 

“All the Lordstown people are down there.” said Bodak. "That’s family."

'TOO YOUNG TO RETIRE'

Back in Youngstown, Monica Beasley-Martin and her husband Thomas used to lease new GM cars every two years. But today, Monica drives a 20-year-old Buick, having returned the last lease in January.

“Nobody’s going to give you a car loan if you’re unemployed,” she said.

GM hired Thomas in 1983, when he was fresh out of college. Years later, he became one of the first computer programmers at the Lordstown complex. His last day was July 1, 2018, when the plant’s second shift was cut. 

Unlike those on the picket line, Thomas was salaried, so he didn’t have the option to transfer, but he was urged to apply to other GM plants. He sent applications across the country, but didn’t get an offer. He’s 59.

“He’s too young to retire and too old to be hired someplace else,” Monica said. “General Motors doesn’t care about us because we were not part of the union.”

GM offered severance, but only until Thomas’ unemployment kicked in. The company also offered health insurance, but with a $12,000 deductible and no coverage for their pre-existing conditions — so it wasn’t worth it, she said.

Monica, a local pastor and environmental activist, is shifting toward substitute teaching. The couple is now taking $1,000 monthly payments from Thomas’ 401k, recouping at least $12,000 of the almost $70,000 annual salary Thomas had at GM.

But when Monica spoke with Mahoning Matters last month, the couple was about $5,000 behind on the mortgage for their North Side home and considering leaving the area.

“Right now, I can’t afford to do anything. I can’t sell it,” Monica said. “I feel like … the dog that’s chasing its tail but never catches it. I honestly don’t know what exactly I’m gonna’ do. I know I can’t continue in this situation.”

The couple has a friend who’s offered them some living space in Texas, but for Monica, Youngstown has been “home” her entire life.

“This is the time I thought I’d be doing other things — just kind of slow down for a minute and just enjoying my life,” she said.

THE HOUSING CONNECTION

The housing market is inextricably tied to labor and employment, said Carl DeMusz, CEO of Yes MLS Inc., which aggregates Northeast Ohio real estate listings.

DeMusz, who's based in the Cleveland area, worked in real estate since the late 1970s, when the Mahoning Valley's steel industry collapsed and when runaway inflation caused housing interest rates to soar.

“However, I was still able to sell houses, and the reason was people were still employed,” he said.

“Overall, employment is pretty good in our region and that has had a nice, positive impact on the sale of homes. The interest rates have moved around a little, but not much,” DeMusz added.

The Yes MLS data echo what GM union workers told Mahoning Matters: Nearly 19 percent fewer homes were put up for sale or sold in Mahoning and Trumbull counties in the past two years. However, close to 10 percent more homes were under contract for sale as of August, the most since August 2017.

Marlin Palich, president of the Warren Area Board of Realtors, said though the area's housing inventory is low, the market's appetite for small- or mid-sized homes is still healthy. However, homes more than $200,000 or $250,000 — which once sold very well in Mahoning County — have begun to stagnate, he said.

"We do have a lot of baby boomers in this area. One of the things they look at when they're downsizing is those smaller villas. ... That's a house that sells relatively quickly. That's something the market demands now."

Palich and others working in area real estate, such as Jeff Rickerman, president of Mahoning Valley Real Estate Investors Association, said an exodus of working-age homeowners could lead to an influx of retirees, but that hasn’t happened yet.

“When the steel mills went, there was a lot of upheaval,” Palich said. "[Now, it’s] more of a focused upheaval. Back then it was just craziness. Houses were coming on the market and people were jumping.

“I think people are being a little more cautious on what they’re doing today. And I think that’s a good thing,” he added. “They’re thinking it through and [about] options. I don’t see this mad panic.”

[EDITOR'S NOTE — This story has been updated with the correct career biography for Thomas Martin.]




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