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Published June 20 2013

Forum editorial: Homeless amid ND prosperity

One of the unintended – and apparently unanticipated – consequences of rapid oil and gas development in North Dakota is a rising homeless population. It seems counterintuitive, given the exceptionally strong economy in the Oil Patch and elsewhere in the state. But examination of the whys and wherefores provides answers.

It’s housing, mostly. But it’s also unrealistically high expectations by job migrants. Despite official hype rising from oil country cities and state agencies, Oil Patch roads are not paved with gold. They are, in fact, paved with mud, dust and disappointment for many.

The numbers are disturbing. As the state piles up record surpluses from oil and other revenues that are cascading into the treasury, North Dakota (population about 700,000) counted in January more homeless people than neighboring South Dakota (population 833,350). There were 2,069 in North Dakota; 537 in South Dakota, or nearly four times as many.

What’s going on? Again, it’s primarily housing. Housing stock of all kinds has not kept up with demand in oil towns. More problematic, housing costs have priced people out of the market, especially those workers who don’t have the best jobs in the oil industry. They’ve been hurt by oil-driven hyperinflation in housing and other basic life necessities.

The state has pumped billions into oil country for roads, hospital rescues, law enforcement and infrastructure of all kinds. Several housing incentives are on the books; developers are taking advantage of some. But not near enough is being done to meet the escalating need for affordable housing.

Well, the excuse-makers say, it’s the private sector’s role to build homes and apartments as the market dictates. Free enterprise, you know. That would be true if the state were not the lead cheerleader – both in the political and regulatory sense – of almost uncontrolled oil and gas development. The policies embraced by the Legislature and the governor’s office have encouraged and stimulated energy development, which is OK. But state government also has a responsibility to embrace fixes for the damaging consequences that have been caused in large part by the state’s go-go-at-any-cost support for oil development. Homelessness in the midst of unprecedented prosperity is one of those embarrassing consequences.

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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.