By Kevin Killough
Pam O’Konek and her husband, Mike, live in a spacious fifth wheeler. It has a wide living room, a kitchen, and a bedroom. They have built a mud room off the front door and a makeshift porch with wood pallets. Buckets of bright flowers surround the propane tank.
By the looks of it, it’s a comfortable home, and the couple has lived there for about three years now. However, Pam says it’s not been without its challenges.
“They’re not made to live in. That’s the problem,” she says.
On top of broken door handles, frozen pipes, and a refrigerator that gives out every winter, they had their furnace break last February. Due to the cost and difficulty getting someone to install a new one, the couple didn’t get it replaced until late May.
They spent some days bundled up with their breath forming clouds in their living room.
“It was cold,” she said, shrugging her shoulders as if shivering from the memory.
While it’s true oil workers bring home high-dollar paychecks and can afford the sky-high rents, the area is filling up with people providing other services who don’t make oil field wages. This includes nurses, police, and cashiers – a class of employed people who find it hard to afford a place to live.
Pam’s husband is a “hot oiler” and Pam works as an administrative assistant in an office. They would move out of their RV into an apartment, but they just can’t afford it.
“You have to give up one of your paychecks to rent,” she says.
Pam says rents would have to be half what they are now before she and her husband would move into one. They never thought the RV would be home for this long.
Visions and realities
As with the other communities in the Bakken region, Tioga has experienced unprecedented growth that doubled the town’s population to an estimated 3,000 residents, swelling the demand for housing.
While that demand is drawing a trickle of developers, there are many challenges to building in the Bakken, including labor shortages, high material costs, and a short building season.
On top of all that, the drive to build apartments is running up against the Tioga City Commission’s vision of a stable, family-oriented community.
At a commission meeting last April, Ron Smith, co-owner of EMS Properties, brought a plan for a 4-plex project he calls Dakota Street Estates. The Planning and Zoning Board approved the developer’s 8-plex housing, but the commission had some reservations over the density of the project.
As a good-faith measure, Smith scaled the plans down and presented the revision in hopes of getting a better response. The commissioners still weren’t pleased with the prospect of more townhomes.
“We’re making a big mistake,” said Jeff Spivey, who was on the commission at the time. “We’re going to grow, and we have to make sure we do it right.”
The commissioners were also concerned with the estimated price tag of up to $260,000 for the units.
“For that much, you should get a yard with some swings,” Spivey said.
Reacting to the plans after the meeting, Commissioner Rhonda Davidson expressed concern most of the new developments in town are multi-family housing.
“It just seems like that’s all we’re building . . . We’re letting people build and not calling them on the quality of their work. How’s this going to affect us 20 years down the road?” she asks.
She says developers are greedy and building more apartments will not bring down rents.
However, there are many in the community who say there are market realities that need to be considered.
Community Development Coordinator Melissa Koch says developers have told her single-family housing is too expensive to build right now.
“The city needs to be understanding of these setbacks and more willing to accept multifamily housing as a realistic option for builders in Tioga,” she says.
According to a growth analysis completed in June, the population of Tioga will be somewhere between 6,500 and 8,300 people by 2019.
Based on average rates of occupancy, the town can expect that 5,500 single-family and multifamily units will be built in the next five years, if housing stock is going to meet demand.
Tioga Economic Development Corporation President Chris Norgaard says the commission doesn’t provide a welcoming atmosphere to developers or work proactively to bring them in.
“I don’t see them really trying to court developers,” he said.
He says project move reasonably well through the planning and zoning process, only to get hung up by the commission. As an example, he pointed to the four-year saga of planning to increase water and sewer capacity. It’s just now moving towards the bidding process.
“I don’t see where the city commission is working to enact smart growth,” Norgaard said.
Koch says the city is looking at ways to allow housing developments to proceed in a way that doesn’t cause problems down the road.
“I don’t think developers are necessarily being discouraged to build in Tioga, but there is a definite sense of worry among builders when commissioners express doubt in current developer’s plans and abilities,” says Koch.
Koch also says the commission tends to scrutinize developers as a result of some bad experiences in the past in which large developers failed to meet their obligations or performed substandard work. Annabelle Homes came to Tioga and other communities in the state with lots of promises of good, affordable housing, including single-family dwellings.
Tioga did everything it could to accommodate and expedite the planning process, even giving the company the land at a reduced price.
The company never did build many of the homes it said it would. Now a new developer is working to bring the development to completion.
Commissioner John Grubb, who served on the Planning and Zoning Board for nearly five years, says Annabelle left a lasting impression on the city.
“We’re not against development by any means, but you might say we’re a little nervous about it,” he said.
Smith’s Dakota Street Estates remains in the planning stage. He declined to discuss specifics but said permits are not what’s holding the project up.
The housing progression
Even if single-family housing prices were more reasonable, newly arriving families will still need rentals.
Jolene Kline is the executive director of the North Dakota Housing Finance Agency. She understands why local governments have an aversion to mega-plexes springing up around the core of the older, single-family houses, but she says homeowners almost always start out as renters.
“I think every community wants to have that long-term home buyer, but not everyone coming into the state is willing to make that commitment right away,” she says.
When people move to a new place, they want time to check it out and make sure it’s a right fit, so they seek a place to live without any strings attached.
“Typically, that’s a rental,” Kline says.
Only after living some time in rentals do families typically move into a house. It’s possible would-be homeowners are deterred from making a life here in Tioga when their initial housing experiences are expensive and unpleasant.
If the housing problems are to be resolved, rentals will have to be part of the future growth of the city.
With home ownership well outside their current possibilities, renters like the O’Koneks continue to make do. And for the immediate future, the situation looks bleak.
At a meeting in July, Koch said, “We talk to apartment owners, and they say they have no intention of lowering the rents anytime soon.”
Tribune intern Madelyn Beck contributed to this report.