The Williston City Plan and Refugees in Europe

Thanks to the University of North Dakota Geography Department, I was able to hear a nice talk yesterday by the Donald Kress, Principal Planner of the City of Williston. He walked us through the policies established beginning in 2008 to provide for crew camps in and around Williston. His talk focused on crew camps, which were either closed camps established by a company to house their workers (e.g. Halliburton) or open camps which were operated by a company specializing in workforce housing (e.g. Target Logistics). The talk did not deal with less formal kinds of workforce housing like R.V. parks. He took us through the complicated procedures associated with acquiring a Special Use Permit which allows for a conditional change of zoning for a property and explained that this kind of permit accommodates most crew camps within the City of Williston. The policy calculations involved in deciding on how many and where crew camps are accessible ranged from the pressures a particular camp might put on city services, the camps location, the need for housing, and even the aesthetic appearance of the facility.

The conclusions of his talk was particularly timely. On Monday night the city made a move designed to eliminate (or at least reduce) the number of crew camps within city limits by July. The thinking behind this decision was complex, but seemed, in part, to come from the realization that Williston’s housing inventory is starting to catch up with the boom and there remains a good many alternate forms of short-term housing available in both Williston (hotels) and in the surrounding Williams County which has slightly different rules and policies. At a number of times in the talk, Kress contrasted temporary housing with permanent housing, and it appeared that at least part of the housing policy in Williston was to encourage permanent housing to support the new workforce to become permanent residents of the community. There was less emphasis on the need for short-term housing was a temporary expedient for the lack of permanent housing inventory and not a reflection of the short-term character of many of the jobs being created in the Bakken.

As I listened to his talk, I couldn’t help but reflect on the difference in attitudes between workforce housing in Williston and the housing of refugees from Middle Eastern conflicts in Europe and the US. The temporary housing popping up around the Middle Sea to accommodate displaced people is temporary as part of a larger strategy to move the refugees onto somewhere else. In Williston, temporary housing was seen as an expediency to accommodate a new population, but flawed because it could not offer the opportunity to be part of a community in the way that permanent housing could. 

The most depressing reality of this is that many of the folks who live in temporary “crew camp” housing in Williston do so voluntarily and look forward to returning home at the end of their stay. Williston is trying to convince them to stay and become part of the Williston community instead. In contrast, much of the world is trying to find a way to limit their engagement with the refugee who are looking to make these places their permanent or at least long-term homes. Clearly, communities in the Bakken realize that many of the current temporary residents are specialists who would have to adapt to different economic conditions if they intend to stay in the community for a long period of time. In other words, Bakken communities assume the same kind of economic flexibility that many struggle to see in refugee communities. 

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