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Adequate Housing Hard To Find In Boom Towns For Oil, Gas


When you think of oil and gas boomtowns, you probably picture cramped man camps, a lot of transient workers and the bare-bones needed to survive. Maybe not the most family-oriented places, but plenty of oil field workers do come to town with their families in tow. Wyoming Public Radio's Melodie Edwards reports the challenge is finding these families adequate housing.

MELODIE EDWARDS, BYLINE: For the last month, the Foshee family - 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 in northeast Wyoming. But the family has just moved into a roomier 31-foot camper. Here's what 9-year-old Clay loves about the move.

CLAY: The special features.

EDWARDS: The special features?

CLAY: Yeah.

EDWARDS: What are the special features?

CLAY: It has a radio.

EDWARDS: 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 his welding job in Texas two years ago when the oil fields went bust there. For a while, he got odd jobs and came home every few weeks. But he says he refused to do the man camp thing - bunking with a bunch of guys.

RONNIE FOSHEE: It just don't seem comfortable, I guess. And to be that far away from your family, you should be comfortable.

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

RACHEL FOSHEE: I had a week to pack up the house and take what we needed and left the rest behind.

EDWARDS: As a trained welder, Ronnie makes good money - $25 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 playing a thousand dollars a month. It cost that much because Gillette has very few places to rent. Chris Estes is the director of the National Housing Conference.

CHRIS ESTES: There's a health impact if people aren't well-housed, the educational impact on kids when they're in unstable housing.

EDWARDS: And Estes says leaving it up to private enterprise to fill the need doesn't work.

ESTES: The market's usually going to respond in a pretty short-term way. And I think if you want your communities to be attractive places to live long-term, it takes some coordination and partnership.

EDWARDS: For instant, partnerships with the energy companies themselves. Reliant Asset Management is one that made its name running man camps. Now they've been hired by Key Energy in Williston, North Dakota to build and manage family camps for employees. These have 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 has been a sort of boomtown case study.

DANNY HEISLER: It was a scarier place to be. It wasn't a friendly, family environment.

EDWARDS: But for people who have come back to Williston more recently, it's a happier and safer place. Key Energy pays for half the cost of these cabins. And Heisler says it's this kind of company-supported family housing that's helping to change the city's vibe.

HEISLER: With the amount of money that rent costs in Williston, there's no better option. You just can't beat it when your company's paying for, if not all, half of your housing.

EDWARDS: It's an option Foshee wishes she had. She takes me out to see the tiny trailer the family just moved out of. The sun is setting over the winter prairie.

RACHEL FOSHEE: It's so pretty here 'cause I'm used to pine trees. And here, you can see the sky here.

EDWARDS: But with the price of oil falling rapidly, it might not be long before Ronnie is looking for work again and they're making the decision one more time about how to keep the family together. For NPR News, I'm Melodie Edwards. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Melodie Edwards graduated with an MFA from the University of Michigan on Colby Fellowship where she received two Hopwood Awards in fiction and nonfiction. Glimmer Trainpublished “Si-Si-Gwa-D” in 2002 where it was one of the winners of their New Writers fiction contest. She has published stories in South Dakota Quarterly, North Dakota Review, Michigan Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Crazyhorseand others. She is the recipient of the Doubleday Wyoming Arts Council Award for Women. “The Bird Lady” aired on NPR's Selected Shorts and Prairie Schoonernominated the story for a Pushcart Prize. She has a story upcoming in an anthology of animal stories, published by Ashland Creek Press. She is the author of "Hikes Around Fort Collins," now in its third printing. She is circulating Outlawry,a novel about archeology theft in the 1930's with publishing houses. She is currently working on a young adult trilogy about a secret society of crows and ravens.
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