Flock To N.D. Oil Town Leads To Housing Crisis

Remote Williston, N.D., is the scene of a modern-day gold rush — black gold in the form of oil deposits. Workers are flocking to the area for high-paying oil field jobs. The hours are long, the work is hard, stress is high and housing is nearly impossible to come by. The city hasn't invested in infrastructure for new housing since losing a $20 million investment after the last boom went bust.

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To a modern-day gold rush now, in the windswept hills of the Upper Midwest. Thousands of people from around the country are flocking to places like Williston in far western North Dakota. They're drawn by the promise of high-paying jobs in the oil industry.

This new rush has led to a severe housing shortage, and thats making life stressful for newcomers and longtime residents alike. In resolving the crisis, Williston is trying to learn from its past boom-and-bust mistakes.

Meg Luther Lindholm reports.

Unidentified Woman: Good morning. Any gas or diesel?

Unidentified Man: Good morning. Nope.

MEG LUTHER LINDHOLM: It's 7 a.m. at this Cenex gas station in Stanley, North Dakota, about 90 miles east of the Montana border.

Dozens of trucks are idling in the newly expanded parking lot while workers wait in four lines inside the store. It's what passes for a Grand Central Station here in the middle of this enormous expanse of wheat-colored land.

Eric Thunsell(ph) is one thousands who have come to take a high-paying oil job.

Mr. ERIC THUNSELL: Im from Minnesota and, you know, I came up here because of the oil patch. You know, it's booming and word gets around, and you come up here to make some money, I guess.

LINDHOLM: The current boom began in 2007, when new drilling technology opened up immense oil reserves. Oil jobs pay big money here. And while jobs are plentiful, housing is not. It's so scarce that Thunsell is one of many workers living in makeshift housing - in his case, it's his truck.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THUNSELL: Basically, you know, it has some of the comforts of home. You got a sleeper and, you know, you can have a TV there. Im actually going to put a Ronco rotisserie grill in there because I got an inverter.

LINDHOLM: Many workers here are living in hotels, mobile homes or so-called man camps, which are dorm-style housing. Others, like Vance Delgado from Bakersfield, California, live year-round in their RVs here at the Buffalo Trails Campground.

Mr. VANCE DELGADO: In January, when we got here, it was really cold, lot of snow on the ground. And the first day we rolled into town, it was 15 below zero. When we came here to Buffalo Trails because there was no housing, no rentals - not even a motel room to be had. So, and we brought our trailer with us, so we figured that'd be the best way to go - and cheapest.

LINDHOLM: Longtime Williston resident Linette Benis(ph) remembers a similar housing crunch during the last oil boom, in the '70s. She says this time, it's much worse.

Ms. LINETTE BENIS: Our town is huge, and there is just not anywhere to live. A two-bedroom apartment would have been $350 a month two years ago, and I would say now - that they're going for $1,000 a month.

Mr. ROGER CYMBALUK (Co-Owner, Basin Brokers Incorporated): As we're pulling up on top of the hill to the west side of Williston...

LINDHOLM: Roger Cymbaluk is the co-owner of Basin Brokers Realty, and he's showing what happened after the last oil boom ended.

Mr. CYMBALUK: The green building was a foreclosure. The buildings down below the hill here, two of those were foreclosed on. This property here to my right was sold for $50,000, and the guy was thrilled to death to get rid of it. And that's about seven acres up in here.

LINDHOLM: Williston Mayor Ward Koeser says the city was financially devastated after the last oil boom ended in the early '80s. It took 15 years to pay off the financing on infrastructure for housing that was never built.

Mayor WARD KOESER (Williston, Montana): So the community is a little more conservative this go around and they're saying, let's grow, let's take advantage of this opportunity we have here, but let's be a little cautious and not overdrive our headlights. Let's make sure that we don't take on risk that we can't handle.

LINDHOLM: It's the state that gets millions in oil tax revenues. So this time around, city officials are asking the state to share some of the financial risk of developing new housing.

But local builder Gary Wendel thinks bringing in cheap or temporary housing, like more mobile homes, would be a better way to avoid calamity in another bust cycle.

Mr. GARY WENDEL (Owner, GDW Home Builders): The oil business isn't permanent, and that's the biggest problem. I have some real strong reservations about large investments in this type of thing when we just have no guarantee it's going to last long enough to pay it back.

LINDHOLM: For workers like Delgado, living at the Buffalo Trails Campground, housing is important, but not as much as the job itself.

Mr. DELGADO: We're going to be here for a while, yeah. I think we're going to ride it out however long it lasts, however long they'll have us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LINDHOLM: While it's clear city leaders here want to provide housing for everyone in need, they're struggling to do it in a way that won't hurt them when this current boom goes bust.

For NPR News, I'm Meg Luther Lindholm.

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