WILLISTON, N.D. — After living all of her 82 years in the same community, Lois Sinness left her hometown this month, crying and towing a U-Haul packed with her every possession.
She didn’t want to go, but the rent on her $700-a-month apartment was going up almost threefold because of heightened demand for housing generated by North Dakota’s oil bonanza. Other seniors in her complex and across the western part of the state are in the same predicament.
“Our rents were raised, and we did not have a choice,” Sinness said. “We’re all on fixed incomes, living mostly on Social Security, so it’s been a terrible shock.”
It’s an irony of the area’s economic success: The same booming development that made North Dakota virtually immune to the Great Recession has forced many longtime residents to abandon their homes, including seniors who carved towns like Williston out of the unforgiving prairie long before oil money arrived.
In addition to raising the rent, Sinness’ landlords were going to require even long-term tenants to pay a $2,000 deposit. She fled for a cheaper apartment in Bismarck, beyond the oil patch, where her daughter also lives. Her new home is 230 miles away.
Thanks to new drilling techniques that make it possible to tap once-unreachable caches of crude, a region that used to have plenty of elbow room is now swarming with armies of workers. Nodding pumps dot the wide, mostly barren landscape.
But because it has limited housing, the area is ill-prepared to handle the influx of people. The result is that some rents have risen to the level of some of the nation’s largest cities, with modest two-bedroom apartments commonly going for as much as $2,000.
The skyrocketing cost of living is all the talk at the senior center in downtown Williston.
“Grandma can’t go to work in the oil fields and make a 150 grand a year,” said A.J. Mock, director of the Williston Council for the Aging. Many of the seniors who are moving out “have lived here their entire lives and wanted to live here until they die.”
Ellavon Weber, 88, is getting elbowed out of the state entirely. She’s reluctantly moving to Arizona, where two of her three children live, leaving behind friends, her church and her weekly aerobics classes, as well as pinochle games and quilting bees. She says she will even miss the brutal winters.
“I thought I’d be in North Dakota the rest of my life, but evidently, that’s not the case,” Weber said.
Drilling operations have transformed the area, which now resembles an industrial park. Previously uncongested highways and city streets are clogged with 18-wheelers.
Some workers live in tents, cars and campers. Hotels are booked for months. Just a handful of homes were listed for sale in October in Williston, including a humble mobile home priced at $149,500. Two mobile home parks that were abandoned after the last oil bust are now full.
In most of the surrounding towns, temporary housing camps have sprung up. Because many of them are little more than dormitories made out of shipping containers, some communities have banned them for sanitary and safety reasons.
Flooding that damaged thousands of homes in nearby Minot last summer has exacerbated the housing shortage.
Developers have been slow to build more apartments, largely because they got stung by the region’s last oil boom when it went bust in the 1980s. About 1,000 new housing units are planned for this year, but no one expects them to make a real dent in demand.
Local officials are “turning over every rock to see if we can find a solution,” Mayor Ward Koeser said. But “nothing has been found yet.” He blamed the issue on supply and demand, and in some cases, greed and gouging.
North Dakota law forbids capping rental rates. And dozens of low-income housing units built decades ago are now being used to house oil workers at higher prices.
Jolene Kline, director of the state’s Housing Finance Agency, said landlords who have pulled out of the low-income program have fulfilled legal requirements to provide the housing for 15 or 30 years. But, she added, that doesn’t make it right.
“You can’t put people in these situations, and in the worst cases, make them homeless because they can’t afford shelter anymore,” Kline said.
Eighty-year-old Mayo Miller hand-delivered her rent check last month just so she could give her landlord a hug and thank her for not raising the rent.
Miller’s rent has jumped just $200 in 20 years, to $550. She said that increase has been fair, especially since her apartment could easily fetch $3,000 a month from a homeless-but-moneyed oil worker.
Nancy Hoffelt’s family owns the apartment complex, and she remembers when tenants were in short supply just a few years ago. The family made a decision to keep rental rates within reason, especially for seniors.
“You just realize that not everybody out there is making money from oil,” Hoffelt said.
Like many apartment owners in the oil patch, Hoffelt no longer answers the telephone.
“We don’t have vacancies,” she said. “When we’d get calls, their stories were just heart-wrenching.”
Alton and Mary Lou Sundby, both in their early 70s, were notified last month that their rent would nearly triple. The two were almost forced to move in with their children who live out of state. But an apartment opened recently at a senior housing complex where they had been on a waiting list for more than seven years.
Mary Lou Sundby, who works part-time with mentally challenged adults, said she never thought she would be ashamed of the town where she and her husband, a retired truck driver, were raised and raised their own family.
“It just boils down to morals and ethics,” she said. “And I think we’re losing those in our hometown and everything it stood for.”
Sinness hopes she’ll eventually be able to return to her hometown. She’s on a waiting list for an assisted-living complex for seniors. She also owns mineral rights on land where her grandparents homesteaded a century ago.
Oil companies are now eyeing the property for drilling, and she may reap oil royalties.
“I’m going to be buried in Williston, next to my husband, so I’m coming back dead or alive,” she said. “But I’ll never pay $2,000 for rent.”