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Despite Low Oil Prices, North Dakota Remains an Expensive Place to Live

A year ago, there were 185 rigs drilling for oil in the Bakken region of North Dakota — today there's just seventy-six.
Photo by Sarah Jane Keller

On a dusty street in downtown Williston, North Dakota, Jerry Page sat in the driver's seat of his gold van outside an employment center. Last summer was the time to be in the Bakken oilfield, according to Page. "It was crazy," he said.

North Dakota was producing more than a million barrels of oil per day then and the price for each peaked at $115.

So much can change in a year, though. In June 2014, prices began to slide — then plummet. By early this year, a barrel of oil cost less than $50. Prices have risen slightly since then, but remain well below what they were last summer, which has put a dent in North Dakota's oil industry. Now just 76 rigs are drilling for oil in the state's Bakken oil field, down from 185 a year ago .


And that means less work for the Jerry Pages of the world.

"I do feel bad for people that are coming up now," he says. "If they don't already have something on their resume it's going to be tough for them."

And he's got another piece of advice for job seekers: "The housing out here sucks."

Before oil prices tanked, unprecedented amounts of oil development attracted an influx of workers, creating housing shortages and driving up rental prices. While housing prices are starting to fall, it's still tough to find affordable places to stay — an indicator that the Bakken's economy has yet to implode a year after oil prices began sliding.

Like nearly everything in western North Dakota — including Williston's $9.95 smoothies — housing is expensive, even after months of extremely low oil prices and a contraction in the industry's output.

"I can understand people trying to make money, but for me to pay $1,400 or $1,500 to stay in someone's garage, that's a mortgage, I can't make myself pay that," said Page.

That's why he's sleeping in his van.

Jerry Page says housing costs remain high, despite the economic slowdown in the Bakken.

Home of Economy, a discount chain, opened a new oilfield workwear store in Watford City, North Dakota amidst a downturn in oil prices. A year ago there were 185 drill rigs in the Bakken oil region; today there are just 76.

With rig numbers well below what they were a year ago, housing demand is no longer outstripping supply Nancy Hodur, a researcher at North Dakota State University, told VICE News.

The housing website Apartment Guide reported that one-bedroom apartments in Williston averaged $2,394 in December 2013, exceeding Silicon Valley rents by $500. Today, that amount could get a Bakken oil worker a two-bedroom apartment.


The rural region's housing prices remain steep, said Hodur, especially for the oilfield workers who accrue fewer overtime hours or have seen their wages cut back.

South of Williston, McKenzie County is the fastest growing county of less than 10,000 people in the nation, according to the US Census Bureau. Watford City grew from 1,600 people to 16,000 during the oil boom. The community had so much catching up to do that oil prices haven't had a big impact on housing prices there, according to Gene Veeder, the executive director of McKenzie County's job development authority. In fact, new apartments continue to pop up around town.

"I think it's fair to say that you are not seeing panic here, he told VICE News. "We are in a holding pattern. We're not going to see the kind of growth in 2016 that we saw in 2015 but I'm surprised at how just we haven't missed a lick around here. I think it's because we're in the sweet spot [of the Bakken]."

Gene Veeder says the drop in oil prices hasn't triggered a panic.

The 1,100-bed Capital Lodge in Tioga, north of Williston, is no longer full as the drilling frenzy has slowed — so the company plans to downsize.

Just outside of Watford City, camper trailers spread out along brick-colored gravel roads not far from oil pumpjacks. Veeder said a proliferation of temporary housing is a sign that there's still an apartment shortage.

The North Dakota Indoor RV Park is one of the spiffiest camper settlements in the area. For around $1,200 RV-dwellers can rent heated indoor parking bays, saving them from the trouble of using a hairdryer to unfreeze their doors every morning before work.


"We have definitely seen the economy take a toll on the people that live here," says Shirley Dister-Haupt, who manages the park. But, she adds: "As quickly as people move out, others are moving back in."

Bill Caraher of the University of North Dakota studies workforce housing and cautions that vacancies in temporary housing may not tell the whole story about the oilfield economy.

Not only are some people likely moving into the new apartments popping up in Williston and Watford City, larger companies may be holding on to empty beds or RV pads, hedging their bets that oil prices will improve. Others may have already booked spots for the summer. Even if drilling activity continues to be slow, road and pipeline construction work remains.

"What you see on the ground may not be correlated with what's actually happening with the bottom lines of these various workforce housing vendors," Caraher told VICE News.

Zach Beers (left) quit his oilfield job when his bosses cut his lucrative overtime work. He is moving back to Oregon. 

Williston's Walmart offers $17-per-hour jobs to keep up with the Bakken's high cost of living and low unemployment.

In downtown Watford City, Zach Beers is packing his truck to return to Oregon after a year and half in the Bakken. "I liked the money when I first got here," he says. "I didn't move here for the scenery."

Beers quit his $20 per hour job testing wells after the bosses cut his hours from a hundred per week to forty. Some of his former co-workers seemed ready to quit too, he said.

"You're pretty much working to stay in place and save, but it doesn't add up," he said. He paid $600 a month to share a modest house with five other people — though he did manage to buy a Camaro.


Veeder said the pace at which people left North Dakota following the downturn surprised him a bit. "Everybody I talk to now is worried about what are you going to do when this busts and you are going to have these flapping curtains in the breeze," he told VICE News. "We're not there yet, we're still short on housing."

"Like any investment you don't know what's going to happen in the future," he said. "But we're right in the heart of the Bakken, and the chances of the United States not exploring for oil over the next 10 years are pretty limited."

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Photos by Sarah Jane Keller

Follow Sarah Jane Keller on Twitter: @sjanekeller