North Dakota can't control rents: Candidates' positions vary on how best to help housing crunchSouthwest North Dakota has a lot on its plate as the fall elections near. Oil production has helped drive down the state’s unemployment rate, but the benefits do not come without their drawbacks.
By: Katherine Grandstrand, The Dickinson Press
Southwest North Dakota has a lot on its plate as the fall elections near. Oil production has helped drive down the state’s unemployment rate, but the benefits do not come without their drawbacks.
One of the biggest issues in the Oil Patch is the lack of affordable housing, especially rental units, and the mid-income families and individuals that get caught between eligibility for low-income housing and being able to afford rent or mortgage.
That is where imaginative housing solutions come into play, said Dickinson resident Alan Fehr, Republican candidate for one of District 36’s State House seats.
“I think that if people are creative, I think that many people, maybe most people, will find something that works for them,” he said.
Some inventive housing solutions can be hazardous, said District 36 Democratic candidate Bev Berger, Richardton.
“I don’t think just putting campers here and there and everywhere is safe and I don’t think it’s good for the towns,” she said.
There is a North Dakota law that prohibits rent control by local governments.
“It’s an alien concept to North Dakotans. Any time you have something outside the box that people aren’t accustomed to, it’s likely to be a hard sell whether it makes sense or doesn’t make sense,” said Paul Rechlin, executive director of CommunityWorks North Dakota, an affordable housing and community improvement nonprofit in Mandan.
Rent control can come in different forms and, if elected, Berger would have to see a plan before making any decisions.
“It’s totally different when you’re on the outside,” she said.
The market will balance itself out and government involvement in the housing market will only create complications, Fehr said.
“There are some things that government needs to do,” he said. “But I think as a general sense if rents are going up, people need to look at what works for them.”
“I understand where some of the rent needs to go up,” Berger said. “But I don’t believe we needed to overly engorge.”
There are some that have lost their housing, especially those with fixed incomes, because of large rent increases, she said.
“The housing crunch is very difficult for some people,” Fehr said. “And, of course, it’s a boon to others.”
Those selling houses and who own rental property are benefiting from the high demand and low supply of housing in the Oil Patch, he said.
After getting burned in 1980s oil boom, many would-be developers and more-so would-be lenders are worried about jumping feet first into large building projects, Rechlin said.
“The whole problem is cost of construction is high and cost of construction has never been higher than it is right now,” he said. “Whatever that cost of construction might be, how can you put that kind of investment into construction of new housing and be able to charge rent that’s affordable?”
“Unlimited money is the only solution and that doesn’t exist,” Rechlin said with a slight chuckle.
But partnerships between government, private companies and nonprofits can create relief, which they are doing in North Dakota, he said.
Temporary housing, when done in a structured manner, may be the answer to overbuilding, Berger said.
“When the oil boom is done, the camps will go away and the communities won’t be left with residential areas that are abandoned,” she said.
In previous sessions, including the last, there have been some programs introduced that have created and funded some affordable housing projects, Fehr said. He worries about too much government intervention.
“We want southwest North Dakota to be a great place to live,” he said. “And that means housing, that means schools, that means roads, that means a lot of things that the government — state, city, county — all share some involvement in making it happen. But it also means, and I think, our economy in some ways may be a wake-up call to people that the government doesn’t exist to solve all problems.”