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Published: Wednesday, 11/16/2011

Oil boom forcing N.D. seniors to leave home


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.

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,” Ms. 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.

Ms. Sinness 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. 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.

“Grandma can’t go to work in the oil fields and make 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.”

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.

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.

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