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Amy Dalrymple, Forum News Service, Published February 21 2014

Oil Patch Dispatch: Williston rent still high, but early signs show market becoming competitive

WILLISTON, N.D. – My rent is decreasing $250 next month, which in any other city would be cause for celebration.

But in the boomtown of Williston, recently named by Apartment Guide as the most expensive rental city in the country, a decrease of $250 still puts my rent at $2,250 a month, nearly three times what I’d pay for the same apartment in Fargo, where I lived before moving to the Oil Patch.

Still, even as this city’s rental prices are making national news, I’m seeing the first signs that the apartment market here is becoming more competitive.

To move into our two-bedroom apartment two years ago, we had to pay a $2,500 deposit and first and last month’s rent. Even though I get a housing allowance from my employer, that was still a big check for us to write.

This year, as I looked at what other rental options are available, I’m finding security deposits as low as $500 and incentives such as first month’s rent free or a free membership to Williston’s new rec center. One new housing development sent direct mail ads enticing us with a waived security deposit.

I’m encouraged by these incentives because that kind of competition didn’t exist two years ago.

The pace of construction here is remarkable, and I can point to complete neighborhoods that weren’t there when I arrived in 2012. Williston permitted 3,895 new apartment units during the past three years.

But many of the newest buildings and others that open this year are calling themselves “luxury” apartments with amenities such as a fitness center and clubhouse and free cable and Wi-Fi, and they’re charging between $2,650 and $2,900 for a two-bedroom.

The addition of those complexes likely contributed to my rent decreasing, but they don’t give me a more affordable option if I were to move out.

Some in Williston questioned the recent Apartment Guide survey that said Williston rental prices are more expensive than New York, San Francisco and anywhere else in the country, with the average price of a one-bedroom in Williston just under $2,400.

The fine print on their survey says it was calculated using apartment listings as of Dec. 31. The survey considered each apartment community’s least-expensive floor plan to come up with the average price. Apartment Guide had 16 listings for Williston and the surrounding area.

The survey provides a snapshot, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. I believe it does accurately reflect the average price of a one-bedroom apartment that’s advertised in Williston. This week I found listings for one-bedrooms ranging from $1,800 to $2,000 for basic units to $2,700 for a furnished apartment with free cable and Internet.

What the survey misses are older apartment buildings in Williston that still charge way below oil boom prices. But you’re not likely to see those advertised because vacancies are rare and filled through word of mouth.

One Williston landlord, who asked not to be named because “there will be no end to how many people will call me,” told me she charges $750 for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment. But she never needs to advertise her 40-unit complex, so that figure would not be calculated in the survey’s average. (She’s full, by the way.)

A woman I interviewed last year who participated in a protest of high Williston rent prices pays just under $1,300 for a two-bedroom in an older Williston building. I have not come across ads for vacancies in that complex, either.

In addition, city and county governments, schools and hospitals have made progress on providing affordable apartments for “essential personnel,” and those rental prices would not be reflected in the survey.

Any survey is going to have some flaws, and it’s difficult to compare Williston to anywhere else in the country. (How many apartments in other cities feature mudrooms and garages big enough to fit oilfield work trucks?)

But the national comparison does put into perspective how difficult it is to get into a Williston apartment.

To me, the most meaningful way to gauge whether housing prices are becoming affordable is to drive by a Williston RV park. If affordable apartments were available, we would not have hundreds of residents willing to pay $800 a month (not including utilities) to live in a camper in a North Dakota winter.


Dalrymple reports from Williston for Forum News Service. Follow her blog at http://oilpatchdispatch.areavoices.com/