Interview with HUD secretary

BISMARCK—The nation’s top housing official said Tuesday that he saw the depth of the housing struggles some families are enduring to keep their jobs in western North Dakota.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan spent time in Williston and Minot on Monday and Tuesday to hear about the housing challenges in oil country.

“It’s one thing to read about it. Seeing is believing,” he said. “Really seeing it for myself and seeing the challenges was critical.”

Donovan discussed his trip to North Dakota in a phone interview with Forum Communications.

Q. Of all the places in the country you could be, why did you decide to come to North Dakota?

A. The president asked me to come because the success of North Dakota is important, not just for the region. I was in Williston yesterday. I’m in Minot today. I met with mayors from a range of communities that have benefited from the oil boom here.

That’s important not just to those communities and their success, not just to North Dakota’s success, but to the nation’s success.

If we can’t make sure that there’s housing available in communities that are benefiting from the oil boom, we’re not going to be able to create jobs in this country. We’re not going to be able to have true energy independence and reduce our dependency on foreign oil, which is a key priority of the president.

He asked me to come because the success of this region is critical to the nation’s economy. And housing is a key part of making sure that this job growth can continue.

Have you been to North Dakota before?

I have not. I actually have traveled to 48, now 49, states in my life. When I get to South Dakota this afternoon, I will have visited all 50 states in the country.

I was invited specifically by Senator (Kent) Conrad and also spent time with Congressman (Earl) Pomeroy yesterday.

I would not have known that these challenges were so acute around housing if it hadn’t been for the advocacy of Senator Conrad and Congressman Pomeroy on behalf of North Dakota. They’ve been vocal about the importance of housing as part of the solution to ensure continued job growth.

What were your thoughts as you toured the area?

I’d say two things, somewhat contrasting, in fact.

One is that North Dakota should be proud of the success that I saw in Williston and so many communities. You see challenges of success and particularly when so many parts of the country are facing severe unemployment, the legacy of this terrible recession that the president inherited.

All of the challenges that we talked about really are a result of companies wanting to come here, of seeing a work ethic and a set of values in North Dakota that has really made the region a success.

And so while the challenges are very real, one of the things that really struck me yesterday is that these are challenges of success, and North Dakota ought to be proud of the success that it’s had.

On the other hand, those challenges are very real. When you see a family that’s willing to drive 1,000 miles, take a job in a community where they’re maybe even sleeping in a tent or living in a camper, that you know is going be bitterly cold (in winter), you really do see that housing is a critical part of the solution for these communities.

Talk about some of the testimony you heard and what people wanted from you.

This is the other thing that’s critical about coming. I was here to see for myself and understand the challenges but also to hear about local solutions.

The important role the federal government can play, and the president believes that our administration can play, is not to come in and say, “We have all the answers and the federal government is here to do this.”

Instead, what I heard yesterday from local government officials, from folks from the private sector, is we do have a private sector that’s ready to step in that can lead the development of new housing, new infrastructure that will help these communities grow and prosper.

But there is also hesitancy on that private sector, having seen a boom and bust cycle before in the oil industry, seeing the way that the balance sheets of many local community banks have been hurt by the recession that we’ve been through, even though it hasn’t affected North Dakota in the same way.

There is hesitancy for private developers and investors to come in and build at the scale necessary to really keep up with the growth.

Therefore, what we can do to be helpful is bring resources that can partner with the private sector to make sure that there is consistently long-term capital available for that growth.

We went and visited a 51-unit development called Waters Edge, a beautiful new apartment complex that’s being built in Williston. It wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the Recovery Act.

Another example is through the Federal Housing Administration, or FHA which is part of HUD. It was created by Congress right after the Depression to make sure housing capital, whether it’s for single-family homes or apartment housing, capital is available, loans are available in difficult times when the private sector retreats.

What are you going to report back to the president?

I’m going to report on the progress that we’ve already made. I’ve mentioned the Waters Edge and FHA.

I saw roofs being installed on public housing … housing being improved because of the Recovery Act incentives.

What I’ll also report to him on is what new things we’ll be able to do, what ideas I heard on other ways we could be helpful.

The other thing I heard very consistently is it isn’t just the actual capital or loans to build housing. It’s also the broader planning of what these communities will look like going forward.

One of the things I heard very consistently is, “We don’t want to make mistakes of the past.”

We drove by apartments put up very, very quickly, almost haphazardly, during the oil boom in the ‘80s. Many folks said to me, “This is what we don’t want to do.”

We want to make sure we’re building the right housing in the right kind of places. We want to make sure we’re developing a true community: the schools, the roads, the health care, all of the pieces necessary of a thriving community are accounted for and part of the development to happen.

That’s why the president has made a key focus providing the kind of planning dollars, particularly to small communities, that haven’t been available before.

That was something I heard very consistently is a key piece of what the federal government can provide.

And we can help connect all of the local leaders I met with yesterday to some of the best practices from around the country.

How quickly can the federal government provide help?

We are already doing that. The Recovery Act has been a critical source of financing. The planning money that I talked about, we will be awarding that funding this fall. That can be of assistance very quickly and, in FHA, we’re ready to provide assistance on loans whether it be single-family loans or multi-family.

What are some things that struck you personally as you toured the area?

I saw men living in tents across from the library where we met yesterday.

I saw campers with families making a desperate effort to try to insulate those campers and ensure that they stayed as warm as possible through the tough winters of North Dakota.

When I saw all of that in one day, it just really brings home the nature and the depth of the struggles some families are going through to be able to keep jobs here and provide for their families.

It made sure that I’m going to go back to Washington to work with Senator Conrad, to work with Congressman Pomeroy to make sure we do everything we can as a partner at the federal level to help those families have a decent roof over their heads (and they) are warm during the winter and make sure that they can provide for their families by keeping their jobs there.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I’m headed to South Dakota later today really to see in some ways the opposite end of the spectrum. There are unemployment rates of 75 percent or more on many Native American reservations. There, the housing challenges are extreme, but from a different point of view.

I’m really seeing both ends of the spectrum, if you will, in the Dakotas on this trip and making sure we’re meeting the broad range of needs for rural communities around the country.

HUD secretary visit

I spent about seven hours in a meeting yesterday, so got behind in blogging. Related to all of the Running with Oil stories you’re seeing this week, the HUD secretary is visiting the state next week.

From Sen. Kent Conrad’s office:

Senator Kent Conrad announced today that United States Secretary for Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan has accepted his invitation to visit Williston later this month to get a firsthand look at western North Dakota’s critical housing challenges.

“We’re facing a very unique challenge in the oil patch. We have plenty of jobs, but not enough housing for the people who hold them.  This challenge, if left unchecked, could stifle future growth in the region,” Conrad said.   

Conrad, Donovan and Congressman Earl Pomeroy will meet with leaders from Williston and surrounding communities on Monday, August 23. The secretary will be given a tour of the community by Williston leaders followed by a meeting with officials from other communities in the oil patch.  Gov. John Hoeven has also been invited.

My morning as a trucker

My trek across North Dakota oil country continues. Last week, I went from Bismarck to Tioga to Williston to Ray (I recommend the Ray Cafe hamburgers) to Bismarck. Yesterday, it was Bismarck to Belfield to Killdeer to Bismarck.

I woke up at 4:15 a.m. to get out the door to Belfield by 5:15. And this was generous since the woman I was spending the morning with is at work by 5:30 a.m. CT.

After two years away in Missouri and Washington, D.C., I continue to be amazed at the emptiness of North Dakota roads….despite the fact that I lived here 26 years and then was only gone two. But after two years of I-70 (which is the main road for Kansas City to St. Louis and I lived in between them), I-94 is a driver’s paradise.

I arrived at Missouri Basin Well Service for my interview with a woman trucker and was pleased with how friendly everyone was. When you’re toting around a TV camera, you never know what kind of a reaction you’ll get.

My trucker, LaRae, and I set out for north of Killdeer together and had a very enjoyable morning finding oil to suck up into the semi to ship out.

Look for my story on LaRae and my other oil stories to start airing on WDAY and WDAZ in August. I’ll post definite dates when they’re known.


Dems respond further to Hoeven’s denial

Received from the four western North Dakota legislators who want to see a special session called to address infrastructure needs in the oil counties and cities: 

June 24, 2010


Governor Hoeven, through his spokesperson Don Canton has dismissed our call for a special session without even a moment of consideration for our points. Canton says that the Governor says, that there is no need to go into special session now because the state has already addressed the situation in oil country. Canton promptly discusses $50 million coming from federal leases, but fails to disclose that through a formula in the Flood Control Act, 50% must go to schools and 25% went to certain townships and only the last 25% to counties.

We say to Canton, let us talk to the Governor. In our letter we requested a meeting to visit about these important issues. Our intent has been criticized by some Republicans as a political ploy, but the fact is, our constituents need the state’s help now. We offered an example of an emergency measure that could provide immediate support to the region for counties that cannot borrow against future taxes. We know that a special session is not likely to be the time for a comprehensive solution. It’s purpose is to bring some relief immediately where the need is great and the solutions are too far into the future.

We also presented the Governor with a plan for a special session that followed the template used by Gov. Schaffer in the 1994 special session. A disciplined plan is necessary to ensure that such a special session not be distracted by extraneous issues. Long term solutions can and must be addressed in the regular session.

In North Dakota, the Governor has limited powers. He can authorize some bonding authority as he has done with Williston for housing, but the solutions for our part of the oil patch are not found in this authority. Any supplemental appropriation to provide counties and townships with upfront funds based on expected revenues must be done by the legislature.

Some have suggested that Dunn and Mountrail County should have complained earlier like Williston. This is ludicrous. Our counties did come before the last legislative session in 2009 because they anticipated what would happen to their roads. The legislature provided a small portion of support, but certainly not adequate to deal with the problems at hand.

Governor Hoeven’s dismissal of our request is more than disappointing.

Respectfully submitted,

Representative Kenton Onstad, Parshall

Senator John Warner, Ryder

Representative Tom Conklin, Douglas

Representative Shirley Meyer, Dickinson