Unbridled growth: a year in Williston, N.D.
A day off in Williston
Living on the fringe of oil
WILLISTON, N.D. – If you’re just moving to Williston, hoping to earn $100,000 a year working in a boom town of oil fracking, you have two choices as to where you can live.
There is almost no such thing as a vacancy in Williston. Forget about coming to town and just renting an apartment or buying a house within a two-hour radius. And the new extended-stay hotels opening on the north side are already booked at the rates of $699 per week, plus tax.
So your decision for lodging, immediate and even longer term, amounts to a choice between living in an RV or living in your car.
Brad Kuca, a commercial truck driver from Seattle, lives in his van at a spot overlooking the city and a view of the flares that burn off natural gas, so far a waste product of fracking for oil. This Lewis and Clark Expedition Outlook, where explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark passed more than 200 years ago on their way to the West Coast, allows guests new to the area to spend a week camping at the site.
“It’s like the wild, wild, wild West right now,” Kuca said. “But I don’t know where I’m going after this.”
Kuca said he is waiting for offers from companies that are interested in hiring him to drive water, chemicals and other materials needed for hydraulic fracturing. Also known as fracking, hydraulic fracturing involves injecting water, sand and chemicals under high pressure to fracture the rock and extract oil from shale deep in the Bakken formation, an area that covers 200,000 square miles. The shale shelf stretches across eastern Montana, western North Dakota and parts of Canada.
Williston sits in the middle of the formation and has become ground zero for oil extraction in the region since companies began fracking in the area in 2008. Census data shows that the population surged 8.8 percent from April 2010 to July 2011, making Williston the fastest growing U.S. town with fewer than 200,000 people.
Ward Koeser, Williston’s part-time mayor, said the population has soared from 12,000 to over 20,000 in the last four years. Construction workers from Milwaukee, fishermen from Louisiana displaced by the gulf oil spill and truck drivers from Atlanta all call Williston home.
But construction lags far behind population growth, so good living equates to owning an RV and parking it on a small patch of grass. A hook-up to electricity and a sewer can cost $1,000 or more per month.
The city projects that developers will build 3,500 units of housing in 2012, a 78 percent increase over the number of units built in 2011, though that won’t be nearly enough to satisfy demand for the thousands of people around the city living in RVs and cars.
Many of these new units will cost the same as, or more than, Williston’s average monthly rent of $2,400 for a one or two bedroom apartment – more than triple the going rate in 2007. A new ordinance takes effect in September that prohibits the parking of RVs within city limits and that will also squeeze out many of Williston’s residents who live in cars of RVs.
“We can’t afford to pay $2,000 a month for a room, only for it to double,” said Nehemiah Turner, a cook from of Spokane, Wash. He has never gotten a good night’s rest in Williston. “It’s not easy working two jobs and sleeping in your car.”
Koeser said he believes that prohibiting RVs within city limits will ultimately make the town less congested and more family friendly, at least for those with permanent housing. He added that the yearly exodus of workers once winter approaches will naturally reduce the number of residents. Typically, fewer laborers toil outdoors in the winter for 12 hours a day, six days a week in temperatures that can dip well below zero.
“When winter comes here, it’s just not conducive to living in a vehicle or in a camper,” Koeser said. “We’re hoping that people find a place to live, or to be honest with you, they may have to go back to where they came from before the winter sets in.”
Securing housing has been most challenging for people and businesses not involved in the oil industry. While oil companies often acquire housing for their employees in the form of “man-camps,” or temporary worker housing, Williston’s other businesses are hiring workers who live a two-hour drive away.
A sign advertising for an assistant manager and posted outside fast food restaurant Taco John’s promises housing in the form of a subsidized two-bedroom townhouse for a bargain at $700 per month. A makeshift tool store sells hardware along the town’s main business strip from a tent and converted trailer and is situated in the parking lot of Williston’s Travel Host Motel. The store houses employees in a nearby RV.
Sky Smith and David Bailey, who earn $13 an hour working 10-hour days at the store, said they found work in the store through Craigslist after moving to Williston from Missouri. As seasonal workers who move frequently, they said they have found more work in North Dakota – with housing provided.
“I used to make $9.50 an hour cleaning million-dollar boats in California where housing is expensive,” Smith said. “Here, we don’t get a day off. We just live in the tour bus behind the store.”
For those who don’t have housing provided, the only place to park an RV or car overnight within city limits is in the parking lot of the Concordia Lutheran Church. Due to disturbances caused by people who have parked there in the past, the church performs background checks on those it allows to stay overnight and wakes up everyone at 7:30 a.m.
Alex Lindsay, a former engineering student at City University of New York, came to Williston a month ago from Queens, N.Y. He said he has been living out of his car in the church’s lot and is applying for jobs as a wire drill operator – a $100,000-a-year position that provides living space in a man camp. The city of Williston says that it has 3,220 units of housing in the form of man camps. This number is less than one-third the city’s permitted capacity.
Lindsay is unsure of where he will stay once the city’s RV ordinance goes into effect, and said the town’s ban on RVs is potentially catastrophic for businesses.
“Where are the workers going to live?” Lindsay said. “If we would leave, the whole town would come down.”
The severe housing shortage is not the only barometer of how the influx of people has strained the city’s infrastructure. Williston’s school district expects 45 percent more students to enroll in fall 2012 than did a year ago. Debbie Slais, the director of the Williston Community Library, said she estimates that four times the number of people regularly use her library now compared to before the boom.
“This boom is insane,” Slais said. “We use a lot of staff time helping people. There’s just too many demands.”
Williston can count on some state funding for rebuilding roads, building new schools, or expanding social services. But oil towns across the state currently share about $114 million a year for all the additional needs generated by a booming oil economy.
While North Dakota’s oil tax revenues have tripled from fiscal year 2010 to 2011, cities receive direct distributions from the state that will amount to less than 7 percent of the $1.7 billion that the state collected in fiscal year 2011.
Nearly three times more money, about $342 million, is distributed statewide in the form of property tax relief.
Over time, Koeser expects Williston’s “growing pains” to be cured by public and private development. Even as the town runs out of P.O. Box numbers and street numbers, Koeser said he still expects it to build its way through what is still a severe lack of infrastructure and eventually accommodate the thousands of newcomers. For now, many people wonder where they are going to live come September.
“Things are very hectic and stressful, but we’re going to get through that,” Koeser said. “Hang in there with us. Better days are ahead.”