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Oilfield Families Struggle To Find Housing In Booming Economy

When you think of towns impacted by energy development, it usually involves transient workers, increased crime, and RV parks. Maybe not the most family oriented place. But plenty of oil and gas workers try to make it work, which could be just the cure for some of these social ills. The challenge is finding these families adequate housing. 

The Foshee family is a prime example. For the last month, mom, dad, three kids, a dog and a cat, have all been living in a 24-foot camper at the High Plains RV Park on the outskirts of Gillette. But the family has just moved into a roomier 31-foot camper. Here’s why nine-year-old Clay is glad about the move.

“The special features!” 

“What are the special features?” I ask him.

“It has a radio!”

He also likes the indoor toilet since it means he doesn't have to run to the campground bathroom in the middle of the night. His dad, Ronnie, got laid off from his welding job in Texas two years ago when the oilfields went bust there. For a while, he worked odd jobs in the region and came home every few weeks. But Ronnie says he refused to do the man camp thing, bunking with a bunch of guys.

“It just don't seem…comfortable,” he says. “And to be that far away from your family, you should be comfortable.”

So when Ronnie landed a good paying welding job in Wyoming, his wife Rachel was relieved.

“We all decided at the last minute to go ahead and go,” she says. “So I had a week to pack up the house and take what we needed and left the rest behind. Because we all wanted to be together.”

As a trained welder, Ronnie makes good money-- $25-dollars an hour plus benefits and overtime. But even so, keeping a family together is hard. And expensive. Between the camper and the lot, the Foshees are paying a thousand dollars a month. It costs that much because Gillette has very few places to rent.  Chris Estes, Director of the National Housing Conference, says when families can’t find places to live, it impacts the whole community.

“There’s a health impact if people aren’t well-housed. The educational impact on kids when they’re in unstable housing.”

You can't just leave it to the market to solve it on its own because the market's usually going to respond in a pretty short term way. And I think if you want your community to be an attractive place to live long term, it takes some coordination and partnership.

And he says leaving it up to private enterprise to fill the need doesn’t work.

“You can't just leave it to the market to solve it on its own because the market's usually going to respond in a pretty short term way. And I think if you want your community to be an attractive place to live long term, it takes some coordination and partnership.”

For instance, partnerships with the energy companies themselves. Reliant Asset Management made its name running man camps. Now they're experimenting in Williston, North Dakota building family camps with three bedroom cabins, complete with school bus pickup and playgrounds. Property manager Danny Heisler says, as the epicenter of the nation’s energy surge, Williston is sort of a boom town case study.

“It was a scarier place to be,” he says. “It wasn’t a friendly family environment.”

But for people who have come back to Williston more recently, he says, ”[People say] even in the last four or five years, they’ve seen immense growth in the fact that people are safer, people are happier.”

Key Energy pays for half the cost of the cabins and Heisler says it’s this kind of company-supported family housing that’s helping to change the city’s vibe. 

The company would like to build such housing in Casper, too. But since energy companies aren’t required to pay for housing, it’s not likely they’ll volunteer. Most states have emergency housing trust funds to help attract companies like theirs. But Wyoming is one of the only states without one. State Senator Jim Anderson of Glenrock says that’s because most housing trusts are funded by real estate taxes. In Wyoming, property values are not public information and that’s not likely change.   Because of that Anderson says wagon trains of RV trailers may continue to pour in.

“We’re going to have to investigate and look under all rocks, so to speak. A lack of workforce is one of the most difficult factors in Wyoming.”

And that’s discouraging news for families like the Foshees who may not be able to stick it out.

Rachel takes me out to see the tiny trailer the family just moved out of. The sun is setting over the winter prairie.

“It’s so pretty here,” she says. “I’m used to pine trees. And here, you can see the sky here.”

But with the price of oil falling rapidly, it might not be long before her husband, Ronnie, is looking for work again and making the decision, one more time, about how to keep the family together.

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.
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