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‘Insane rent hikes’ spur protest in North Dakota oil patch

Williston, N.D., residents affected by high rents hold a protest on Friday, May 9, 2014, in Williston. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – Diana Avans moved back to Williston in 1991 to be near her mother, but now she worries she can’t afford to stay.

The retiree received a letter last week that the monthly lot rent in her trailer court will increase from $300 to $850 in June, as the oil boom in western North Dakota has created a skyrocketing demand for housing.

“This is just the beginning,” Avans. “You know they’re not going to stop at $850.”

Avans joined a handful of people who participated in a protest Friday afternoon across from Williston City Hall, holding signs that called for stopping “insane rent hikes” and protection for the elderly.

The protest, which continued Friday evening at Williston’s Harmon Park, was organized by Barbara Vondell, who arranged a similar event in November when a different Williston trailer court increased its lot rent.

This time, the issue hits even closer to home for Vondell because her mother is one of the Williston residents facing a steep increase to live in her trailer.

Vondell’s mother, who is 77 and has Alzheimer’s, receives $720 a month in Social Security benefits, but the lot rent will be $850. Vondell, her caregiver, said she’ll be able to cover the increase in rent.

“It’s going to be a struggle, but we’ll make it,” said Vondell, who is running for the state Senate to fight for affordable housing.

City commissioner Tate Cymbaluk, who stopped by to visit with some of the participants, said the investors who purchased the Williston trailer parks have taken advantage of the situation and are placing a severe hardship on residents.

“It’s a true picture of greed,” Cymbaluk said.

Although state statutes prohibit rent control, Cymbaluk said he wants city commissioners to have a discussion with legal counsel about whether there’s something that can be done to lessen the burden on residents.

Vondell and others at the event called for the city to make an effort to “grandfather in” rental prices for the elderly and people on fixed incomes.

“Something’s just got to be done,” said Steve Irgens, a lifelong Williston resident who now pays $1,000 for a one-bedroom apartment.

When Irgens moved into that apartment 12 years ago, rent was $190. He recently paid $650 a month until a New York company purchased the building raised rent to $1,000, Irgens said. Tenants were unable to sign leases that are longer than six months, and Irgens fears he won’t be able to stay in Williston if it goes much higher.

“Everybody in the building’s kind of scared,” said Irgens, who works for a silk screen T-shirt business.

Vondell said she thought more people would be at the protest, but some are afraid of repercussions if they speak out.

“People are scared,” Vondell said. “The elderly, especially, they don’t want to say anything because they’re afraid to get kicked out.”