WILLISTON, N.D. — U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and western North Dakota officials asked the head of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development on Wednesday for help as the state copes with a lack of affordable housing brought on by the oil boom.
Julian Castro, the former San Antonio mayor who was sworn in as HUD secretary in July, got a glimpse of the housing crisis firsthand on a tour of oil patch communities with Heitkamp. Later, he heard about housing concerns at a roundtable discussion in Williston.
In recent years, North Dakota’s oil boom has attracted tens of thousands of workers seeking abundant high-paying jobs in the western part of the state. But housing development lagged behind the rapid population growth, and prices quickly jumped.
“Those people who are making $15 an hour — which sounds like a big wage to people outside our state — can’t afford to live in our state. So we’ve got unique challenges,” Heitkamp said.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, North Dakota has led the nation in housing development rates for the past three years, with oil patch counties leading the charge. But that still has not lowered housing costs in the area.
New arrivals in Williston, at the epicenter of the oil boom, can expect to pay $2,000 a month or more for a recently-built one-bedroom apartment. And just a spot in an RV park can run upward of $800.
Some cannot afford the high rents. Blankets piled up in the backseats of sedans and wardrobes obscuring car windows denote vehicles people are living in. Workers band together and cram into bare-bones one-bedroom apartments or tiny campers to cut down rent shares.
Even those who have money to pay the high rents can have a difficult time finding a place to live.
“We got kids making six figures that can’t qualify for an apartment because of their credit scores,” said Jeff Zarling, president of DAWA Solutions Group, a business development and marketing firm in Williston.
Castro said his visit was primarily to listen to concerns about the housing crisis, bring his findings back to Washington and conduct more analysis on the housing situation.
But Castro and Heitkamp did announce Wednesday the HUD approval of emergency waivers for fair market rents in nine western North Dakota counties.
Fair market rents determine government subsidies to qualifying low-income renters. But Heitkamp has said that fair market rents determined by HUD for North Dakota counties previously did not reflect the rising cost of living in the state.
“Our goal is that folks have quality, affordable, permanent housing,” said Castro.