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Oil Industry Ups And Downs Price Out Longtime Residents Of Fracking Towns

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Oil Industry Ups And Downs Price Out Longtime Residents Of Fracking Towns

Energy

Oil Industry Ups And Downs Price Out Longtime Residents Of Fracking Towns

Oil Industry Ups And Downs Price Out Longtime Residents Of Fracking Towns

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The sudden ups and downs of the oil and gas industry can feel like whiplash for rural communities seeing an influx of workers. Affordable housing has been a challenge. With the current slowdown in drilling, rental prices have dropped, but they're still much higher than they were pre-boom, leaving low-income and senior people still struggling to find a place they can afford.

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So as we heard, the fracking boom in this country is one of the reasons oil prices are so low. And in the rural areas where this drilling occurs, housing prices have gone up and stayed there. As Marie Cusick of StateImpact Pennsylvania reports, that's left many out in the cold.

MARIE CUSICK, BYLINE: For nearly a decade, 64-year-old Ramona DiMassimo lived in a mobile home and had a tough time paying the bills. Sometimes during the winter, she couldn't afford turn on the heat, and she was on medication for anxiety and depression.

RAMONA DIMASSIMO: Many mornings, I just didn't even want to get up 'cause I just didn't know how I was going to get through another day.

CUSICK: Finally, she decided to move. But with a modest income from Social Security and disability payments, she soon realized she had been squeezed out of the rental market in her hometown of Williamsport, Pa.

DIMASSIMO: When the gas came in here, everything skyrocketed.

CUSICK: A few years ago, this small city in rural north-central Pennsylvania became a major hub of Marcellus Shale gas drilling. The big influx of workers and small supply of housing drove up prices. Jonathan Williamson chairs the political science department at Lycoming College and serves on Williamsport's city council. He's studied the housing issue and says prices have dropped as drilling has slowed down, but not enough for many seniors and people living on low incomes. It's also been difficult to plan around the cyclical nature of the oil and gas business.

JONATHAN WILLIAMSON: Housing is a kind of a permanent asset for a community - or, relatively permanent - and so you can't just build it and tear it down on the fly.

CUSICK: In the early days of the boom, Williamson says some people were priced out of their homes by landlords looking for more money.

WILLIAMSON: You know, they're in crisis mode when they're forced out of their home. If they were used to paying, you know, $500 or $600 for rent and they can find nothing in that price range at all, what can they do in the short run?

CUSICK: It was a similar story in the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota. The remote region suddenly saw rental prices start to look more like Manhattan's. As oil prices have fallen though, so have the rents, says Gene Veeder. He's the economic development director for McKenzie County - in the heart of North Dakota's drilling boom. But he says housing prices are still far above what many locals would consider normal.

GENE VEEDER: Well, I'll give you an example. Rates were probably $3,000 a month. They're down to $1,500 a month. Still a significant shortage of affordable single-family homes.

CUSICK: Veeder says drilling began slowing down about nine months ago, just as more developers were finally starting to build more of those single-family homes. Now they're thinking twice.

VEEDER: It becomes less interesting to investors to put that kind of money into an area as remote as we are so they watch real closely what the occupancy rates are.

CUSICK: In Pennsylvania, the state responded by passing a law requiring gas companies to pay a fee for each well they drill, and a portion of that money has to be reinvested into affordable housing programs in communities where drilling's occurring. That's how Ramona DiMassimo was able to move into a brand-new, one-bedroom apartment earlier this year.

DIMASSIMO: They must've known how many blouses I have. They built the closet for me. (Laughter).

CUSICK: Wow. That's great.

Since moving in, she's sleeping better and has stopped taking the medication for anxiety and depression.

DIMASSIMO: I'm proud to call it my home. This is my forever home, I hope. (Laughter).

CUSICK: Although she's happy to have her apartment, she knows many people who haven't been so lucky.

DIMASSIMO: Everybody's on a waiting list, and that's just what it is - a waiting list. You are not guaranteed that you're ever going to get in.

CUSICK: Federal statistics show Pennsylvania still needs more than a quarter-million affordable rental homes for people in poverty. For NPR News, I'm Marie Cusick.

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