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Published April 15, 2013, 08:03 AM

Rural ND experiencing housing issues

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The shortage of affordable housing has been well-documented in recent months in Grand Forks. Outside of Grand Forks, however, in rural areas throughout much of northeastern North Dakota, where the population generally is shrinking, the problem isn’t so much one of availability, but rather of the condition of existing houses.

By: Kevin Bonham, Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The shortage of affordable housing has been well-documented in recent months in Grand Forks.

Outside of Grand Forks, however, in rural areas throughout much of northeastern North Dakota, where the population generally is shrinking, the problem isn’t so much one of availability, but rather of the condition of existing houses.

“That’s a chronic problem,” said Julius Wangler, executive director of the Red River Regional Council, based in Grafton, N.D. “As the homes get older and the population ages, the ability of people to repair their houses and keep them up to code becomes more difficult, especially with reductions in federal funding.”

While the greatest shortage of housing is in the state’s booming oil patch, a recent study commissioned by the North Dakota Housing Finance Agency projects strong housing demand in the state’s east in population centers such as Grand Forks, Fargo, Jamestown and, to a lesser extent, Devils Lake and Valley City.

But most rural counties in eastern North Dakota likely will see little, if any, growth over the next dozen years.

GF factor

Grand Forks, Nelson, Pembina and Walsh counties, which comprise the state’s Planning Region Four, are projected to have 39,979 occupied housing units by 2025, an 11 percent increase from 2010.

All of that growth is expected in Grand Forks County, where the study indicates the demand for occupied housing will increase by 17.1 percent.

“It’s showing that Region Four is particularly driven by the city of Grand Forks,” said Max West, director of public affairs for NDHFA.

Occupied housing demand is expected to decrease, by 2025, by a total of 1.3 percent in Nelson County; 5.4 percent in Walsh County; and 8.5 percent in Pembina County.

The study looked at birth and death rates, according to West, but did not factor in expanding industry, such as the oil patch, which is generating satellite oil service businesses throughout the state.

“These are projections that are 10 to 15 years out,” West said. “If there continues to be a migration of people from west to east, it could have some affect on the numbers.”

Pockets of growth

Industrial growth is helping some smaller cities to at least challenge the trend.

In Grafton, for example, the population dropped from 5,000 to 4,284 in 2010. In July 2011, the estimated population was 4,251.

Grafton offers $20,000 grants to people who build a new single-family home, townhouse or condominium within the city limits, as well as lots for $1 in its Lessard Addition, and two-year property tax exemptions.

The program began with a $500,000 commitment from Marvin Windows, which built a factory in town in 1998, to encourage prospective employees to move there.

Last year, Diverse Energy Systems, a company that manufactures 17,000-gallon tanks and other products for the oil patch, bought and remodeled a long-vacant and deteriorating migrant housing complex on the north end of Grafton. The project’s goal was to provide transitional housing for the growing company’s new workers.

“There may be some demand for additional housing in some communities, like Larimore and Northwood,” Wangler said, “In the more rural areas, such as Nelson County or western Walsh County, there’s no increase in population, so there isn’t demand for more housing. The exception is communities along major highways.”

Livable housing

Officials throughout the region have been examining housing issues over the past few years, as they try to slow the pace of depopulation.

Three counties — Cavalier, Ramsey and Towner — commissioned a study three years ago to identify and address the most critical challenges over the next five years.

The study indicated that 35 percent of the 1,396 single-family houses in Langdon, Devils Lake and Cando — the largest cities in each county — are either dilapidated or in need of major repair. It also identified 99 dilapidated houses and 167 that need major repairs in 10 smaller communities in those counties.

Langdon, for example, since has started a program to encourage the development of apartments in local buildings. So far, less than a half dozen apartments have been added to the city’s housing stock, but it’s a start, according to Carol Goodman, executive director of the Cavalier County Job Development Authority.

It also is working to redevelop a subdivision built in the late 1960s and early 1970s to accommodate workers building the former Safeguard anti-ballistic missile complex at Nekoma, N.D.

While the multi-family housing units were moved to other federal property after the ABM site closed in the 1970s, the basic infrastructure remains.

Meanwhile, some communities, such as Grafton, have financially supported new residential development over the past decade or more.

Grafton also conducted a housing demand study in 2012. One of the chief recommendations was a housing rehabilitation program, to supplement its Grow Grafton house-building promotion, according to Wangler.

“We’re doing that now. It’s about a $500,000 project,” he said.

Quick changes

Wangler said local economic conditions can change in a hurry.

Walhalla, a Pembina County town of about 1,000 near the Canadian border, lost about 60 jobs in early 2012, when the ADM Corn Processing plant closed in town. About 50 of the employees live in Walhalla.

“That’s a big blow,” Wangler said, adding that officials are working to replace those jobs through a variety of potential projects.

“The economy in a community can change in a hurry,” he said. “In Grafton, we were very fortunate to have a vacant housing complex for Diverse Energy. We have to be prepared for tough times, and we have to be prepared for when it turns around.”

Call Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1110; or send email to kbonham@gfherald.com.

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