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Highest Rents Found in Oil Boom Towns of North Dakota

2:06 PM, Feb 14, 2014 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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The highest rents in the country aren't in major metropolises like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago--they're in Williston, North Dakota. Business Insider reports that the highest average monthly rents for entry-level, one-bedroom apartments can be found in Williston, a small town in northwestern North Dakota that's the central city in the state's oil boom of recent years. According to the website Apartment Guide, the average monthly rent there is $2,394, topping rents in San Jose and San Francisco. Fourth on the list is another town on the edge of the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota, Dickinson, where rents average at $1,733.

I spent a week in North Dakota last year reporting on how the oil boom is changing the social landscape in the region, as well as how the boom's economic opportunities have transformed the state into the frontier for America's new pioneers. The topic on everyone's minds in Williston and its environs, I found, was how expensive housing was:

Coming home years before the oil boom, Sanford was an anomaly. Most in his generation stayed in Fargo or Phoenix or Denver, working good jobs, raising their families, and not thinking twice about moving back to western North Dakota. Beyond the romantic notions of small-town life and refuge from the hustle and bustle of the big city, there was nothing there to come home to​—​no jobs, no industry, no future. The population of Watford peaked at just over 2,100 in 1980, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 1990, it had fallen to fewer than 1,800 people and by 2000, fewer than 1,500. 

By 2010, as the oil boom began to spread to the smaller towns like Watford, nearly as many people were living there as had been 20 years before. And today Watford City is bigger than it’s ever been, close to 2,500 people. Sanford says a lot of thirtysomethings originally from the area are moving back as he did, but plenty of new faces are coming, too, looking for a place to live in the middle of the oil patch. That’s created some tangible problems, like a housing shortage. New apartment complexes and single-family homes are starting to be built around town, but supply is far behind demand. Sanford says rents can reach $3,500 a month​—​prices more like those in a big city than in rural North Dakota. Locals rent out rooms in their houses to newcomers. “There’s not enough motels,” he says. “So every available bedroom becomes a motel room. Everything’s a hundred bucks a night.”

Sometimes, there just aren't good housing options for people who find work, even with higher-than-normal wages:

It takes a while to get back on the highway, with one big rig after another zooming down the tired asphalt, their tanks filled with oil, rushing eastward to distribution centers in Minot, Bismarck, Grand Forks, or Fargo. Meanwhile, I’m headed west, toward Williston, the alpha boomtown and the heart of the Bakken. The signs of development begin miles outside of Williston city limits, chiefly in the form of brand-new, full-service truck stops. Ten miles from the city center there’s an extended-stay hotel that offers rooms with full kitchens for $599 a week. That’s high, but so are the salaries. At the new, massive Walmart down the street, there’s a help wanted sign offering entry-level jobs with starting wages at $17.50 an hour. Restaurants, bars, hotels, gas stations, retail shops all line the main drag into town, each with its own “Help Wanted” sign. There’s work here, if you can find a place to live. 

It’s not unheard of for men to sleep in their cars in a lot behind a truck stop, using the facilities to steal a shower when they can. There are also the infamous “man camps,” some of which are exactly what they sound like, tent cities on the outskirts of town. They house temporary workers, roughnecks who took the tough jobs on the drilling rigs and need a place to park their carcasses at the end of the day. But as demand for temporary housing rose and locals became weary of the unsightly settlements, the man-camp professionals came in. Companies like Target Logistics manage collections of modular homes for oil workers and other temporary laborers, complete with full board, on-site laundry and canteens, and 24-hour security. In North Dakota, these man camps can house anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand workers. When the temporary jobs dry up, the companies pack up the supplies, put wheels under the trailers, and move on to the next boomtown.

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