Welcome to Williston, N.D., where jobs are bountiful, rents high, and affordable housing in desperate need.
Sitting on a slice of earth believed to hold billions of barrels of precious oil, Williston has gone from a sleepy little farm town to the epicenter of North Dakota’s oil boom.
The fastest-growing small town in America, the population in and around Williston swelled by 9.3 percent last year to lead the nation.
The city itself had about 17,000 permanent residents at last count, but the local service population, which includes the permanent and temporary workforce, is about double that and growing fast as people are lured by the area’s nearly nonexistent unemployment rate.
They are arriving on the windblown prairie, settling like dust. Pioneers with cell phones and pickup trucks.
One of those pulled by the promise of a better future is Gregg Zart, who relocated to Williston a year ago.
“I was one of the newly unemployed having been laid off from a job as a graphic artist at a sign shop,” says Zart. “I decided to make a radical change. I was tired of the paycheck-to-paycheck jobs.”
He left Washington state on a scouting mission after seeing news stories about Williston. When he got off the train, Zart couldn’t find a single vacant hotel room. That left him spending a night behind a mattress store that had tossed some beds in a large trash bin.
He made a video of that evening and continues to chronicle his Williston experience on YouTube. With a mix of humor and outrage, Zart gives viewers a glimpse into crazy traffic jams, harsh North Dakota winters, and other bits of daily life in the western end of the state.
Undaunted by that first rude night, Zart moved to Williston in February 2012. He says he had a job offer within 72 hours. Housing not so fast.
“The apartments in town all said the same thing: The waiting lists were about a year out,” he says.
Zart, who has been steadily employed at the Walmart Supercenter, lived in his van for about a month and a half and then in a trailer home for nine months before finally getting an apartment.
“Affordable housing in Williston is an oxymoron,” he says.
Prosperity is coming at a price. Not only do new arrivals need an affordable place to live, but so do longtime locals who are being pushed out of the market as rents soar to levels that match Manhattan and San Francisco.
One- and two-bedroom apartments average more than $2,000, and three-bedroom apartments rent for about $3,000 a month, according to observers.
“What was once affordable is no longer affordable,” says Jolene Kline, director of the planning and housing development division at the North Dakota Housing Finance Agency (NDHFA).
Overall, the demand for housing in the state is expected to increase by 30 percent from 2010 to 2025, while demand in the northwest region, which includes Williston, is projected to grow by about 167 percent, according to a housing needs assessment by the Center for Social Research at North Dakota State University. This will include a good number of people at the lower income levels.
Seeing the housing crunch, NDHFA has made several moves to increase the affordable housing stock.
It is directing a big portion of its federal low-income housing tax credits (LIHTCs) toward the oil territory. In 2012, the agency began setting aside 50 percent of its annual credits to developments in any of the state’s oil- and gas-impacted counties.
To ensure that strong developments are built, NDHFA is calling for these projects to achieve a minimum score. Requiring a minimum score also helps to encourage deeper income targeting, so some apartments will be reserved for residents at the lower end of the income spectrum.
In another move, state officials created a $15 million Housing Incentive Fund (HIF) administered by NDHFA. The program raises funds for affordable housing multifamily developments. Individual and corporate contributors receive a dollar-for-dollar state income tax credit for their contributions and can target their funds to a specific project or community.
All $15 million was out the door in less than a year, and all but four of the 25 funded developments are in oil territory. State officials are now looking at reauthorizing the HIF at an even higher amount.
Housing the Workforce
Before the recent oil boom, this North Dakota town located about 70 miles from the Canadian border was better known for being the boyhood home of famed basketball coach Phil Jackson. His photo has recently graced a sign that touted him as a member of the Williston High School class of ’63.
These days the more prominent signs are the giant help-wanted billboards paid for by the big oil companies in town.
Not everyone is pleased with the fast-moving changes sweeping through town. Life, in many ways, has become more difficult. The increase in population has meant more crime along with a long list of inconveniences. What used to be a five-minute drive has turned into 25 minutes. Restaurants and stores routinely have lines.
Another familiar scene is construction crews.
On the campus of Williston State College (WSC), a 74-unit development is being built to house college employees, State Highway Patrol officers, and health-care workers.
“Our president was concerned we were hiring people who didn’t have a place to stay,” says Terry Olson, executive director of the WSC Foundation.
After getting calls from people inquiring about some trailers owned by the college, Olson helped bring together other area employers who were feeling the housing crunch.
As a result, they are building an $8.8 million mixed-income development that is financed with the help of Gate City Bank, which contributed $1.25 million to the HIF, targeting about $700,000 to the WSC Foundation’s development.
The college will use 30 apartments for some of its employees. State Highway Patrol, state Game and Fish, Fort Union national historic site, and Bethel Lutheran Nursing Center employees will also rent apartments in the four-story building, which will include retail space and underground parking. The development is scheduled to be completed this summer.
As people move to town, more law enforcement and other essential service workers are required, and they all need a place to live, says Olson.
One of the most active affordable housing firms in town is G.A. Haan Development, an experienced LIHTC developer.
Gerald Haan, head of the Michigan-based company, started working in Williston early on in the boom after he was introduced to the area by associates from the oil industry.
His firm entered the market by building the 40-unit Williston Senior Apartment Homes for elderly residents earning no more than 40 percent, 50 percent, and 60 percent of the area median income (AMI).
“Seniors were among those impacted the most,” says Haan, explaining that many of them had moved from the outlying areas to be close to health care and other services. When the oil action took off, these retirees started to see their rents increase.
Haan Development then completed a 40-unit family development, Nokota Ridge, last year. The community’s apartments are for residents earning no more than 30 percent and 60 percent of the AMI.
Oil workers earn too much to qualify for the housing. Still, there are many others who need an affordable place to live.
“We don’t necessarily cater to the worker in the oil field,” Haan says. “We cater to the people who serve them breakfast in the morning.”
Both of the developments received LIHTC awards from NDHFA. The Richman Group Affordable Housing Corp. syndicated the tax credits to investors to raise equity to finance the construction of the projects.
The team had worked with Haan on other deals, so it had a relationship with the developer and the construction company, says Vice President Terry Gentry.
However, the location was new for the financial firm.
“The organization had to do its due diligence about the market,” says Gentry, noting that the first deal began in 2009 before many people had even heard about Williston.
The remote location and the high volume of construction taking place can be challenging, making Williston difficult to visit and to access construction supplies and crews. However, after seeing the town and examining the market dynamics, including job growth, The Richman Group became involved.
Haan and his team have received another LIHTC reservation this year to build Williston Senior Apartments II, which will provide 21 more units for elderly residents. The firm is also completing two properties, an affordable community and a market-rate development, in Dickinson, another oil country town.
The company was fortunate to get in early and secure land, knowing it wanted to build affordable housing developments, says Ben Ide, development coordinator.
Now, the cost of land has increased, making it much tougher to pencil out a LIHTC development.
There are other challenges as well. Although North Dakota conjures images of open plains and endless room to grow, it’s not that simple, Ide says.
Towns are grappling with stressed infrastructures, new zoning issues, and building and planning departments backlogged with work.
Haan Development also found it difficult to find local subcontractors because of all the building going on and workers deciding to go to work as a frac hand or one of the other oil jobs. The firm brought in some of its own team from Michigan to help on its developments.
Workers stayed mainly in hotels, and if they couldn’t find one in Williston they would look in neighboring cities such as Minot. Many of them also had other jobs in the region, so they would hopscotch around job sites as needed, making their time in the area more productive, according to Ide.
Boom or Bust
Even as the growth continues at a feverish pace, one question is never too far away: How long will the current oil rush last?
North Dakota has seen booms and busts before but nothing like what’s happening now. Most are confident that the “Bakken gold” will be here for a good while. Some predict 20 years, maybe more.
“We have drilled a little over 8,000 wells, and we are estimating there are 50,000 wells to be drilled,” says Rachel Sawicki of Williston Economic Development, a nonprofit in town. “The boom is here to stay.”
Even so, NDHFA officials say they are being mindful not to contribute to a bubble down the road.
Since 2008, the agency has helped finance or made conditional commitments to eight developments with 353 units in Williston.
“We’re cautious about creating too much housing,” says Kline, who has been with the agency since 1985. She notes that several of the new developments target elderly residents. The state’s population of residents 65 and older is projected to swell by 52 percent between 2010 and 2025, and many of them will be cost-burdened.
To help meet their need for housing, the former Williston Junior High School is being converted into 44 apartments for seniors by Lutheran Social Services Housing. The approximately $10.6 million redevelopment is funded primarily with LIHTC equity from Enterprise Community Investment. The project is also supported by the HIF and federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds.
Haan Development also plans to break ground on its second seniors housing development next year. That will bring its number of housing units in Williston to 101, a low number considering the growth that’s happening, says Haan.
Even when finding a place to live or even a hotel for the night can be impossible, people continue to flock to Williston just like Gregg Zart did.
A year after moving, he misses Washington’s evergreen trees and mountains, but he sounds content.
“I see potential with the job I have,” he says. “I’m making better money than I was making before. As far as that goes, I love it when a plan comes together.”