Oil Boomtowns: Plenty Of Jobs, But No Place To Live

Joey Scott oil boom town

Like a 21st century Gold Rush, tens of thousands of Americans have packed their bags in the last two years and moved to one of the country's booming oil towns. But many of these migrants, lured by the promise of jobs and prosperity, have found themselves unable to find work or housing. Some have ended up living on the streets they thought would be paved with gold.

Wyoming's homeless population has shot up by 67 percent in the last year, The New York Times reported, even as the national rate held steady. In Casper, Wyo., unemployment is a remarkable 4.3 percent, but advocates told The Times that shelters and temporary housing are full to the brim.

In Odessa, Texas, which the Permian Basin oil boom has transformed into one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S., trailers pack every spare patch of land. Hotels have had 100 percent occupancy for two years, reports Mike George, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, and apartments -- despite soaring rents -- often have year-long waiting lists.

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Three large apartment complexes have been built in the last two years, and another three are under construction. The city is issuing new housing permits at a record pace, says George, but none of this is enough to keep up with relentless influx of people.

The school district is introducing 75,000 square feet of portable buildings to house the additional children. "A mobile home, but it's a classroom," explains Ector County Superintendent Hector Mendez.

Even the hospital doesn't have a way to house its new staff, so many live in a trailer park across the street, run by a male nurse. Nearly 60 percent of the homeless population in the city is homeless for the first time, according to a survey conducted last year.

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"We want to grow -- naturally any city wants to do it," says Andrea Goodson, the city of Odessa's public information coordinator. "But we have to step back and say we have to do this without hurting ourselves."

But there are plenty of entrepreneurial minds looking to make a quick buck on the shortage. "A whole new aspect of the business just blew up in our face," says Jason, the general manager of an outdoor living company in New Braunfels, Texas (who asked not have his surname published). The company originally marketed its cabins as back-of-house offices, or sleeping spots for the mother-in-law. But they were soon getting calls from oil field workers.

"We took advantage of the situation," he says, "everybody else is."

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