Oregon Trail Could Have Used Some Multifamily Housing

Back in the day I used to sit in my elementary school’s computer lab, playing the game Oregon Trail.

Originally developed in the early 70s to teach school children about the harsh realities of 19th century pioneer life on the Oregon Trail, the game was a real gut check.

Sitting in front of Apple computers the size of coffee tables, my classmates and I each assumed the role of a wagon leader, guiding our party of settlers from Missouri to Oregon. We had to use guns and bullets to hunt wild animals, keep our fellow travelers in check and make adult decisions—such as whether or not we should attempt to ford a river. More often than not, one of our oxen drowned in the process.

It was heavy stuff for a 9-year-old.

Even worse, members of our wagon party could die at any time from measles, a snake bite, typhoid, cholera, exhaustion or a broken leg. When the game wanted to truly break us down, a “you have died from dysentery” message would pop up on the screen—a turn-of-events so devastating that it once caused a classmate to burst into tears. Seeing her wagon Mother perish in such a savage manner was too much for her to handle.

“The Hunger Games” was a fairytale compared to this.

But despite the death and starvation and horrendous computer graphics, we forged ahead—with or without our oxen and family members—in search of a better future. It was 1848 and there was untapped fortune and opportunity to be had.

Two centuries later, those same opportunities (minus the oxen) are still available—in rural North Dakota.

Today, the country’s biggest and most productive oil field is drawing thousands of workers with the promise of plentiful and profitable jobs to serve the booming energy exploration industry. There’s no shortage of employment—but now there’s a serious housing crisis.

Officials estimate that Williston, N.D., a town of 14,716 according to the 2010 U.S. Census, could grow to as much as 50,000 during the next 15 years. Neighboring cities such as Minot, Dickinson, Stanley and others also are showing the early signs of burgeoning population growth—all due to the seemingly limitless supply of oil.

Many of the modern-day pioneers who are traveling to these towns for work are struggling to find a place to live. Some have no choice but to shack-up in jam-packed rudimentary dorm-style facilities. Others hope they can fit into overcrowded hotels and extended-stay facilities. In even more extreme cases, some are spending $12,500 a month to sleep on the floor of a dilapidated farmhouse and others are considering online listings for renting 1970s-model conversion vans. Covered wagons might be next.

With so many in desperate need of housing, apartment developers have recognized a potential long-term growth opportunity and many are choosing to invest in these risky rural markets. Others are more cautious—recognizing that stories of overnight boomtowns are often bookended with similar stories of overnight busts. One thing’s for sure: no one pays above market-rate to live in a ghost town.

But for now, these towns in North Dakota are showing no sign of slowing down.

Or dysentery, for that matter.

For more on the development opportunities in North Dakota, check out Frank Mauck’s article “Where There’s A Williston, There’s A Way” in the May issue of units, which mails May 8.