In the News: The Other Side of the Oil Boom – Evictions

By Sarah Holder
Bloomberg

Williams County, North Dakota, is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the state’s fracking boom. In the past decade, millions of barrels of oil have been pumped from its land, and the population of its largest city, Williston, has doubled.

But as the oil flowed and workers poured in to staff the rigs, housing options quickly ran dry. The region’s uneven expansion has led to an eviction crisis for the county’s 39,000 residents, according to a recent paper from a group of sociologists affiliated with Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.

Oil production peaked in 2019, evictions have not

\Williams County saw its eviction rate go from “nearly non-existent” in 2010 to over 7% a decade later, the study found. By 2019, at the height of its oil boom — when the state accounted for 11% of the country’s oil production — its eviction filing rate was comparable to that of large, renter-heavy cities like New York City or Philadelphia, according to Eviction Lab.

Though oil production peaked in 2019, the problem hasn’t abated: From January through November 2023, more than 550 evictions were recorded by the Williams County Sheriff’s office, up around 30% from the previous full year.

To Carl Gershenson, the lead author of the Eviction Lab study, the takeaways are clear: Oil production, and the associated influx of people coming into the county to work, is strongly correlated with higher median rents and eviction filings. Williston’s experience therefore offers a cautionary tale for other cities poised for rapid economic growth of any kind, especially growth from a commodity boom.

It’s “good when jobs come to a community,” said Gershenson. “But there’s a distinction between slow, steady, sustained growth, and just a boom when hundreds or thousands of jobs are just dropped in an area almost overnight.”

This shock to the community jumpstarted a process of rural gentrification. Rents for some two-bedroom apartments tripled to $1,000 starting in 2010, “a mattress on the floor of a living room” could cost $450 and the back of an RV or mobile home fetched as much as $2,000, according to the study.

Prices ran so high because units were so scarce. To accommodate the growing workforce, informal options started cropping up. So-called man camps, known for their strict conduct rules and their role in fostering sexual violence, housed the mostly male workforce. Formal lodging took longer to come online, said Lindsey Harriman, Williams County’s community engagement coordinator — between 2011 and 2016, more than 6,000 more units were constructed. Weak tenant protections and a rapid state eviction process that let landlords move to force out residents just three days after a missed rent payment exacerbated the crisis.

A perfect storm for displacement

All this created a perfect storm for displacement, says Gershenson. “I’m sure if you were evicted in 2008 in Williston, again, not that that would be a pleasant experience. But I would bet you could find another place to rent pretty quickly,” he said. “That happens to you in 2012, it’s a completely different world. Suddenly, you’re navigating a rental market that you’ve never had to navigate before.”

Many of the oil rig workers who came to Williston were well-compensated, but job stability wasn’t guaranteed. Though production kept increasing, around 2015 the price of oil started to drop and “the boom started to die off for the community,” said Verlan Kvande, Williams County’s sheriff.

“I think things were more difficult for families or individuals to maintain rents,” he said. “People were being laid off with a lot more regularity.”

Still, Gershenson says that the analysis he did showed that there was almost no correlation between oil price and evictions — oil production is what mattered.

Steve Kemp, a lifelong resident of the area, experienced the housing crunch that accompanied the oil boom firsthand. After separating from his wife near the start of 2014, he needed to move out of their shared house. Affordable options were scarce. Construction had started on lots of new apartments, but few had been completed, he recalled.

“At that time, Williston had competing rents with San Francisco and New York City,” said Kemp. “Part of the negotiations I had with my ex-wife was that if I had to move into an apartment, it was going to cost her child support, because I wouldn’t be able to afford to pay as much.” So they compromised. He’d build a small workshop-style unit on one corner of their property, which Kemp lived in for over three years.

Now a county commissioner for Williams County, Kemp lives in a more traditional, spacious house with his new wife, and is trying to use his public office to push for more affordable housing options, particularly single-family homes. He’s prioritizing people with families — people who will stay — and is looking into offering more down payment assistance to buyers, incentivizing builders by guaranteeing loans or creating a program to buy down interest rates.

Kemp suggested another hypothesis for the eviction rates: Because workers on the rigs are so transient, they may just stop paying rent and move out when they find a better gig elsewhere. But Gershenson’s data show it was mostly locals who were driven out — more than 80% of those who were evicted and had a known prior address came from within North Dakota, and more than 90% had previously lived in another home in Williston.

“You often hear about local politicians, local businesspeople inviting fracking into their community, because it promises jobs and economic growth,” Gershenson said. “A lot of people are completely left out of the benefits. But they suffer all of the drawbacks.”

Williams County housing production lagging behind

Part of the reason housing production continues to lag behind need in Williams County, though, is that developers are often wary of building there because they know about the “whipsaw effect of the traditional oil and gas economy,” said Kemp.

To insulate themselves better against those future swings, Williams County is looking to host carbon sequestration projects that could fit into state Governor Doug Burgum’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2030, and which could foster more sustainable growth.

As the region readies for that, Gershenson says there are lessons to take from its early challenges.

“You have to plan for housing ahead of time,” he said. That includes building enough housing to absorb new workers, strengthening tenant protections and thinking about ways to redistribute new revenues directly “to the people who are going to be harmed by this.”

Dig Deeper: North Dakota’s Affordable Housing Challenge

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