Lauren Donovan, The Bismarck Tribune, Published May 12 2013
Mother, son team to survive in Williston rental marketILLISTON, N.D. — Phyllis Larson, 74, has a part-time job at a nursing home, cleans a friend's house once a week, splits rent with her grown son and still worries about money.
She lives in a two-bedroom apartment on the west side of Williston, where rental rates have soared, including her own.
This month, her rent increased nearly one-third to $1,270. That doesn't leave much to pay for everything else — insurance, supplemental health insurance, groceries, utilities and the unexpected bills, like new tires for her car.
"Without my son, I couldn't do it," she said.
The apartment complex on Williston's west side dates back to the early '80s. It's arranged around an outdoor courtyard with a small swimming pool and lawn. Hers has a balcony and two bedrooms.
It's clean to a polish and stuffed with furniture and knick-knacks, but the outside entrances and hallways are grimy, with mud chunks and grease tracks left by a steady stream of oil workers who come inside wearing dirty work boots.
She didn't plan to be living with her grown son — and to be fair, he didn't plan to be living with her, either.
Randy Vig, 50, is recently divorced and after paying out $1,600 in child support each month, bunking in with mom seemed like a good deal, the only one he could afford.
"I'd get by, but barely. Without mom, I'd be camping up with somebody. A lot of people are paying $2,000 to $3,000 a month for a one-bedroom and there ain't a place in Williston that's worth that. It's way out of hand," he said.
So the two, a divorced dad and his widowed mom on Social Security, eke it out together in one of the most expensive rental markets in the country, comparable to Manhattan, where average monthly rent recently reached $3,195, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.
Vig said he works 70-80 hours a week for AirGas On Site Safety and he and his mom sometimes go days without seeing each other. He's there to sleep and shower and she's working back-to-back early shifts in the Bethel Lutheran Home kitchen, where she prepares meals for the residents and staff. She's exhausted and her knees and feet ache after a two-day work stint, so after a little supper she climbs back into bed at 6:30 p.m.
Larson said she doesn't mind the work and the two-week check for $275 makes it easier to buy groceries or a hair trim when she needs one. The $40 she earns at her cleaning job fills her gas tank.
"There's really nothing I need right now," she said.
The new company that owns the apartment complex quit taking extended leases, so she's renting month to month. With no agreement or rent protection, she doesn't know what to expect.
"I think the rent will keep going up. We can handle this and maybe up to $1,500, but there's no other place to get in town," she said. "I'm a good renter and, furthermore, I'm 74 years old. What more do they want?"
Two weeks ago, HUD, the federal housing agency, said it will substantially increase how much rent it pays for the very low-income and disabled people who qualify for rent support in public housing projects in Williams, Mountrail and Ward counties. All three are in the oil boom region, so the agency conducted a special survey to get the most current rental numbers.
In some cases, HUD was as much as 70 percent out of whack with what it calls fair market rent.
In Williams County, for example, HUD increased its rent support for a two-bedroom public housing apartment to $1,087 from $641 effective immediately.
Larson isn't living in public housing and with her son's help, she doesn't need to.
She doesn't know what the future holds, how long she'll live and how her health will hold up. She's already had a few small strokes.
Larson would like to quit her job at the nursing home and enjoy a bit of travel, dipping into her modest savings to see a few places while she can.
Vig said he'd like his mom to quit, too.
"She doesn't need that stress. I tell her to quit that place and enjoy life a little. I think she could get by just fine without it," he said.
Larson said it's hard to walk away from the security she's made for herself; the kitchen job, even if it is hard on her aging body, does help ease her worries.
"I treasure the little money I do have. I feel I have not that many years left and I do the best I can to make things comfortable for myself," she said. "At my age, I can't work forever and he (her son) won't be here forever."
Williston is home and the place she came back to after living in Washington while raising her family as a single mom.
Leaving again is not an option.
"It'd be too devastating to pick up my life and start over now," she said.
Vig doesn't know how long he'll stay in Williston and said he'd love an opportunity to move on to another location with his company, somewhere where it's easier to get along financially than in the oil patch.
"There's so many guys here trying to make a living, paying up to $3,000 in rent and sending money back home so they don't lose the house back there," he said. "They need to take more control with this rent deal in this county."