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Census: 10 counties in state make nation's top 100 for growth

A new Census report says North Dakota led the nation in housing growth in the year ended July 1, 2012.

While the oil boom in the Williston Basin is a big part of it, the state's eastern counties also showed growth, with Grand Forks County one of 10 North Dakota counties ranked in the top 100 fastest growing counties nationwide for housing units added.

"It's good to see Grand Forks County in the top 100," said Kevin Iverson of the state's Census Data Center in Bismarck. "That's a fairly significant increase and shows things certainly are going in the right direction."

The state added 7,388 housing units in the year ended July 1, 2012, a 2.3 percent increase, higher than any other state and well above the national average of 0.3 percent, according to Census data made available Wednesday.

Williams and Ward

The nation's two fastest growing counties for housing were in North Dakota: Williams, showing 13.9 percent growth, and Ward, up 4.8 percent. Williams added 1,525 housing units and Ward County added 1,318. The counties contain two of the Oil Patch's largest towns, Williston and Minot.

Grand Forks County was ranked 58th, with 401 housing units added in the year ended July 1, 2012, bringing the total to 29,917, up 1.4 percent on the year.

The data were announced Wednesday by the North Dakota Department of Commerce, which oversees the state census data center.

Told of the new rankings, Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the Chamber of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, said, "That doesn't surprise me at all."

He said he's been watching a surge in local building in a community known as being short on housing.

"There is still a significant demand beyond that," Wilfahrt said. "That 401 (units built) is being surpassed this year and next year. That was just kind of the start of what you are going to see, a housing boom in Grand Forks County."

And statewide, he says.

2nd to Texas

No other state but Texas, with 24, had so many counties in the top 100 in housing increases as North Dakota.

Stark and Morton counties were ranked eighth and ninth, respectively, and Burleigh County was 17th. Cass County, 23rd on the list, added 1,372 housing units, a 2 percent increase to bring the total to 70,646. McLean County was at 46th and Rolette County at 54th.

Ramsey County added 68 housing units, bringing the total to 5,699, a 1.2 percent increase.

The only Minnesota county making the top 100 was Carver County, on the western edge of the Twin Cities, at 70th, with 1.3 percent growth, adding 441 housing units.

Several counties in northwest Minnesota, including Roseau, Pennington, Marshall and Kittson, showed slight decreases of one or a few housing units. Polk County remained at 14,617 units, according to the Census data.

The fact no other state but Texas produces more crude oil than North Dakota is a related deal, Wilfahrt said. "It shows the impact the oil boom is having on the eastern part of the state."

When Steffes Corp., of Dickinson, N.D., last year opened a facility just west of Grand Forks to make oil field tanks, the availability of housing for employees was a factor the company mentioned in making the move.

"Housing availability is a key component of economic development," said Keith Lund, vice president of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. "It's difficult to grow if you don't have housing units to support employment growth."

City planners have said nearly 900 apartment units and a hundred or more single-family homes are in the approval pipeline for the coming two years or so.

"Clearly there is pent-up demand," Lund said. "Population growth has outpaced development in the recent past, but it appears relief is in sight, with the large number of apartment units and single-family homes coming on line."

Rising rents

Terry Hanson, as executive director of the Grand Forks Housing Authority, which administers federal housing money to people who need some help finding a home, sees the housing issue from the street level.

"The trend is in the right direction," he said Wednesday.

"We were talking this morning with a client of ours looking for a place to rent. And the rents just continue to increase to a point where they are no longer within our payment standards," Hanson said of the federal program that subsidizes housing costs for low-income residents.

The gap between rising market prices for apartment rents and what federal subsidy programs will pay is even more dramatic in the Oil Patch, where basic two-bedroom apartments can fetch $2,500 in monthly rent, Hanson said.

Federal Housing and Urban Development officials just surveyed three counties in the heart of the Oil Patch -- Williams, Mountrail and Ward -- and immediately upped the "fair market rent" levels -- on which subsidies are based -- by a whopping 70 percent to reflect the quickly changing circumstances, Hanson said.

Another HUD survey in south-central North Dakota later this year might raise the "fair market rent" levels for federal subsidies statewide, Hanson said.

That would help in Grand Forks County, where affordable housing hasn't kept up with needs for years, Hanson said.

From 2000 to 2010, the number of housing units in Grand Forks County increased by a total of only 6 percent, or an average of 168 units per year, Hanson said. Since 2010, the annual increase has been about 400 units.

The latest survey by the Greater Grand Forks Apartment Association found a vacancy rate of only 2.28 percent in February, down from 3.02 percent a year earlier.

"So even with those 401 units added (last year) we are still not keeping up," Hanson said.

Wilfahrt said equilibrium appears closer.

"Existing builders are certainly busy," Wilfahrt said. They report being booked up with projects through this year and even stretching into next year, he said.

"And there's a lot on the radar from commercial developers and that's going to keep on pushing," Wilfahrt said. "From a development perspective, it's a good thing to be in Grand Forks and Grand Forks County, and in North Dakota."

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