But where do I sleep?

But where do I sleep?

Aug 18

Scramble to provide shelter for workers a daily chore

By Mila Koumpilova – Forum Communications

WILLISTON, N.D. – A 1980s oil bust gobbled up the Lund family’s multi-million-dollar fortune and unleashed creditors on 2,000 acres of their farmland. Family patriarch Arnold Lund, a Williston oil man, died of a heart attack days after a business deal fell through.

His son, Jim, then 24, started over in Fargo with $5. These days, the real estate agent is back in Williston often, presiding over a multimillion-dollar investment powered by another mad dash to pump oil – and yet another housing crunch. This is a time of $1,400-a-month apartments in nearby Stanley, where the Frostee Treat features more beds for oilfield workers than tables.

Rick Savaria reads his Bible before going to sleep in his van, which serves as his housing in Ross. Photos by David Samson, The Forum

Across northwestern North Dakota, it’s a time of oil workers living in cars, RVs, tents and an old Killdeer church, in Winter Olympics athlete dormitories whisked from Vancouver, and FEMA trailers shipped from post-Katrina Mississippi. It’s a heady time when the crackle of possibility can drown out the anxious voice of past heartbreak. This boom, Lund trusts, won’t be as fickle as the last one. He and his partners bought a Williston mobile home park in 2006 and one in Tioga two years later.

“We’re setting the units up as fast as we can,” he says. “Not as fast as we’d like.”

Real estate scramble

The western North Dakota Oil Patch, despite its sprawling horizons and wideopen spaces, is caught in a feverish grab for scarce living space. The real estate race is driving rents up beyond major metro rates, inspiring makeshift solutions, fostering hardiness – and crimping the hiring spree spurred by the oil boom.

“All employers, including the oil companies, are working at less than full staff,” says Tanya Vachal of the North Dakota Job Service’s Williston office. “That won’t get fixed until we get more housing.”

Oil companies snap up motel rooms and, occasionally, motel conference rooms, to fill up with cots. They chip in for house down payments and lure employees with offers of housing assistance, the area’s most coveted sign-on perk.

Some companies are setting up trailers – basic bunk bed affairs known around the area as “skid shacks” – into clusters of worker-only housing, or socalled “man camps.”

Major player EOG Resources has 350 workers living in rows upon rows of white-and-blue trailers just outside Stanley, with a cafeteria, recreation room and laundry on site. In addition to hotel rooms, townhouses and an 18-trailer worker camp in Williston, Halliburton is setting up 158- bedroom housing this fall that formerly served as Winter Olympics athlete dormitories.

And it’s not just the oil companies that have plunged into the real estate fray. Among the three grocery stores he owns in Williston, Stanley and Tioga, Mike Kraft would hire 16 people instantly to join teams stretched thin.

“If I hear of an apartment or house, I rent it,” says Kraft. “I know I will fill it within the month.”

He puts up workers coming in to interview from Colorado, Minnesota and Montana in the basement of his condo. When laborers arrived from Montana recently to redo the bakery floor of his Williston store, they set up sleeping bags right there, on the cement.

More often, though, the new arrivals are on their own. The resulting living arrangements can be decidedly Spartan.

Rick Savaria from Billings, Mont., moved to Ross and landed a job as a water truck driver. He is living out of his van. Photo by David Samson, The Forum

After his 12-hour shift hauling water to oil wells, Rick Savaria comes home to his dust-coated 1990 Plymouth van parked near the train tracks on the northern edge of Ross. One early evening in June, the temperature inside reached 138 degrees. He has aluminum foil taped to the windows to block the sun’s rays and an AC unit he sticks into a window, a gift from a farmer. The owner of a nearby house lets him plug in the AC in his power supply via a snaking extension cord.

Stretched onto the blooming flower-patterned mattress in the back of his “mini motor home,” Savaria reads the Bible at bedtime.

He knew about the housing shortage when he drove out from Billings, Mont., this summer with a month’s supply of underwear and canned food. He was also broke and desperate: After six months of unemployment, the former beet truck driver was two house payments behind. He had borrowed against the van and his wife’s sedan.

“I can’t quit no matter how tough it is,” said Savaria one July evening as a tornado cloud traveled beyond the train tracks, its dark tail reaching for the brightyellow canola fields. “The Bible says if a man doesn’t provide for his family, he’s worse than an infidel.”

Would-be tenants looking for housing in the area have been known to obsessively check Laundromat bulletin boards for house ads and call more than 40 Williston area landlords.

Jim Barr, a truck driver from Libby, Mont., dropped off a flyer at area businesses and farmsteads. It featured a picture of him, in a suit and tie, and his wife, who hangs back in Libby, along with the phone numbers of a dozen references, from Libby’s sheriff to various “Christian friends.” It also included an offer to do farm chores and a promise not to sue should he get hurt.

“That was the only thing I could think of to sell myself,” says Barr, who moved into an outbuilding on a Palermo farm. “I was kind of desperate. It was either this or move to Minot.”

Conquering weeds

Lund bought the Sand Creek Estates park from the city of Williston in the summer of 2006, for $382,500.

By all accounts, it was a gutsy move. For one thing, he had no experience with mobile homes. He is the fasttalking, straight-shooting head of Fargo’s Lund Home Selling Team, of the “$500 says we can sell your home in 29 days!” guarantee.

Almost six months later, at midnight on New Year’s Eve, Lund, his wife and siblings still scrambled to get homes ready for their first six tenants moving in the next day. His 80-year-old mom wielded a vacuum cleaner.

“That wasn’t exactly a champagne setting,” Lund says.

Also, Sand Creek Estates came with baggage. Back in the mid-1980s, its promise had imploded as abruptly as the enterprise run by Jim Lund’s father, Arnold.

Built in the early 80s, Sand Creek, along with neighboring Cimarron Heights, filled up with oil workers in less than two years – 650 units between the two mobile home parks.

“These parks were a big part of our housing solution back then,” says Williston Economic Development Director Tom Rolfstad. “Then, the price of oil dropped, and everything went away.”

Developers hauled off the mobile units and eventually surrendered the parks to the city, straddling it with more than $5 million in debt. Weeds sprang up 3 feet tall and bored through cracks in the freshly paved roads.

Not long before it dismantled Sand Creek, the bust claimed Arnold Lund, an independent oil man and a household name in the area. He had leased the mineral rights on large tracts of land and sold them to oil companies, leveraging more substantial drilling commitments.

In 1984, Arnold Lund, worth $8 million just years earlier, died of a stressrelated heart attack at 57. An oil company had just backed out of a large handshake purchase.

“He was a good businessman,” Jim Lund says, “but timing was against him.”

The son, on the other hand, had timing on his side when he bought Sand Creek. Oil exploration was just starting to pick up again, and gun-shy investors hung back sheepishly. That was before developers and contractors descended upon the area in full force, and before “man camp,” “skid shack” and “the homeless rich” entered the local lexicon.

Missing kids, thawing pipes

Everyone in the Oil Patch has a housing story.

Tammy Michael tells of her husband, Aaron’s, fouryear stint in a Williston motel room while she and their three boys stayed behind in Billings. Aaron, a land man, only traveled home every four to eight weeks, seeing more of his neighbors down the El Rancho Motel hallway than of his family.

Last year, the Michaels broke down, sold their house in Billings and landed in cramped quarters in a $1,300 a month two-bedroom apartment in Williston.

Bryan Prestjohn, a pipeline worker from Rapid City, S.D., tells of brandishing a hairdryer to thaw out the water pipes on his RV on the outskirts of Tioga this past winter. He recalls anxious thoughts that gnawed at him at bedtime: What if the power went out while he was fast asleep?

“I could freeze up like a rock,” he says. “It’s kind of rough staying in these trailers when it’s 25 below.”

But the housing shortage can be especially tough on longtime residents who confront rising housing costs, without the benefit of high oil field pay.

“Rents are skyrocketing in the community, and that’s where our focus is right now,” says Michelle Orton, client services director at Community Action Partnership in Dickinson. “We have a lot of families and clients that are really struggling to keep up.”

Many of these families have resorted to doubling up with relatives and acquaintances, creating what housing advocates call a hidden homelessness problem. Dickinson’s only homeless shelter closed on June 30, a casualty of the area’s rent prices.

Catching up with the oil boom

The area’s housing shortage has galvanized a battery of enterprising folks looking to cash in or come to the rescue, or both – from major developers to the ladies who own the Frostee Treat in Stanley.

At the eatery, there are now five tables and six beds: three in the back and three in the lobby, only available when the restaurant is closed from October through March. Last fall the owners, ReNae Weishaar and Charlene Bangen, posted a Cenex station bulletin board ad on a Tuesday. By Friday, they had six truck drivers settled in, all relieved they no longer had to bunk in their cabs.

Jim Lund, right, with business partner Ryan Anderson, is confident this oil boom will be sustained, unlike the 1980s boom that hurt his father financially and may have contributed to his death. Photo by David Samson, The Forum

Building cranes tower over cities across the area, and the din of construction blends with the rumble of oil truck traffic. Five mobile home dealers have opened offices in Williston in the past few months alone. According to the state Department of Health’s food and lodging division, more than 25 new RV parks have sprung up in oil country since last fall.

Diane Seibel has owned the RV park in Ross since 1991. For most of that time, the park business was “really sad,” and she even thought about putting the park on eBay.

Today, the 50-some RVs in the park double up for sewer hook-up. RVs are hooked up to all three hydrants once reserved for watering the park’s grass. In late 2008, Seibel bought land adjacent to the park to double its size. Since then, the population of Ross has swelled from not much more than 40 to about 200. Roughly 100 of the town’s residents now live in the RV park.

Seibel, who is also the city auditor, turns away a half dozen people each day.

“They come in, and they’re begging for a place to stay, ‘Can’t you put me up somewhere?” says Seibel. “It’s tough to listen to people daily who are pleading for a place to stay.”

Medora resident and developer Morey Bang remodeled an old Killdeer church where 13 oilfield truck drivers now live.

Along with two business partners, he recently purchased 17 campers from an auction in Mississippi, some of them 2006 models used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to house Hurricane Katrina victims. They are setting those up in a Belfield campground, another remnant of the 1980s oil boom that turned ghostly in its wake.

Bang, who saw his welding business derailed by that bust, has bought into this latest oil spree with some reservations. “That last oil boom … I hope I don’t get burnt like that. That’s my one fear, truly.”

Meanwhile, things are hectic in Sand Creek. When Kathy Mita, a former science teacher from Fargo, took over as manager nine months ago, the park featured 105 units. Now, there are 160, about 60 of which rent for $750 to $925 a month. The rest have sold or are in the process of selling for $65,000 a pop.

Four 36-plex apartment buildings rise to the west of Sand Creek, and, according to the city auditor, work might start soon on five more. The city sold Cimarron Heights, the mobile home park next door, this spring.

More recently, a model double-wide trailer arrived in the park. A buyer snapped up the home before the workers Lund and his partners fly in from Fargo each week had a chance to put the two halves together. The waiting list for rental includes 40 would-be tenants. Recently, an oil company bought 40 units in the park.

“The oil companies have the tendency of not asking ‘how much,’ ” says Lund. “They are asking ‘when.’ ”

Lund sees Sand Creek as the answer to the man camp: a comfortable place where families can move in together and grow some roots in town. He instructs his staff to correct residents who refer to the place as a trailer park.

These days, Lund is only interested in selling units. His workers recently tackled what he calls the Next Step: a smattering of three-bedroom, two-bath modular homes on the edge of the park, with fireplaces, hot tubs, stainless steel appliances and elegant arches between the kitchens and living rooms. They’ll sell for $150,000 to $180,000.

Lund says the city needs homeowners, folks who’ll stick around after the drilling frenzy subsides. Besides, his business partner Ryan Anderson says, “At what point do you quit sticking your neck out and have somebody else invest?”

In the meantime, Lund is looking for land to set up more modular homes.

“It’s here; it’s here to stay,” says Lund. “I don’t think we’ll be packing up and going anywhere anytime soon.”

Koumpilova is at mkoumpilova@forumcomm. com.