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Census says: Bakken growth floating a lot of boats

March 7, 2014


Michael Williams Community Development Financial Analyst
Census says: Bakken growth floating a lot of boats

It’s official: Williston and Dickinson, N.D., registered two of the nation’s highest rates of growth in both population and aggregate income for population centers with at least 10,000 people.

That’s according to new American Community Survey (ACS) five-year estimates, released in December by the U.S. Census Bureau. The latest estimates, which are derived from surveys conducted over a five-year period spanning 2008 to 2012, confirm that population and income growth in the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana is rapid and widespread.

Williston’s rates were, by far, the highest of all 955 of the metropolitan and micropolitan areas tracked by the Census Bureau, with a 6 percent increase in total population and a 20 percent increase in aggregate income from the 2007-2011 to the 2008-2012 estimates.

And these growth rates, while topping the list, likely understate growth in more recent years as Bakken activity accelerates, and do not include changes after 2012. For instance, in a separate data release, the Census Bureau estimated Williston’s population changed by 25.3 percent from April 1, 2010, to July 1, 2012.

The ACS five-year estimates, while not as timely as other data sources, report a wealth of demographic and economic information at the Census tract level. These tracts generally have a population size between 1,200 and 8,000 people. The 13-county Bakken region has 36 Census tracts, all of which are considered non-metropolitan because they do not overlap with a Census designated major metropolitan area. An analysis of median family incomes reveals that Williston and Dickinson have registered large gains, but so too have the more rural regions of the Bakken (see Figure 1).

In 2006-2010, only three Bakken tracts had a median income of 120 percent or more of the statewide (non-metro) median. However, just two years later, 10 additional Bakken tracts surpassed this 120 percent threshold to be classified as upper-income. Over this period, all but one of the Bakken Census tracts improved their median income position (in other words, shifted right in their distribution in Figure 1 into higher income ratios).

 Bakken income Fig 1 -- 3-6-14

 The distribution of growing income can also be seen geographically, as more Census tracts shift into the darker blue upper-income category (see map).

But not all Census tracts improved their income position. In fact, one Census tract, on the northwestern edge of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, remained low-income, or less than 50 percent of the statewide non-metropolitan median (see red-shaded tract). The median family income reported in this tract was the only one in the Bakken region whose five-year average dropped from 2007-2011 to 2008-2012, and it has fallen in each of the last three ACS five-year averages. However, for the Fort Berthold reservation as a whole, incomes have been rising at rates similar to the rest of the region.

Bakken income Fig 2 -- 3-6-14

Broadly speaking, ACS data also imply that incomes are keeping up with rising rents. As noted above, Williston was at the top of the national list for population and income growth, with Dickinson not far off the pace. However, neither city was in the top 10 nationally for growth in median rent (despite robust rent increases of 9 percent and 8 percent, respectively, in Williston and Dickinson). As a result, ACS estimates imply that the percentage of renter households considered highly burdened (housing costs greater than 30 percent of income) in the Bakken actually declined from an average of 34 percent of renters in 2006-2010 to an average of 31 percent in 2008-2012. Over that same period, the proportion of highly burdened renters increased from 45 percent to 46 percent in the non-Bakken portion of Montana and decreased from 42 percent to 40 percent in the non-Bakken portion of North Dakota.

However, other evidence points to rising housing burdens in the Bakken. Median rent for all renter-occupied housing units averaged $534 in Williston during the five-year period 2008-2012, according to ACS estimates. But much higher rents were recently reported for at least one segment of the Williston rental market.

According to a recent Apartment Guide blog post, Williston had the highest average entry-level rent in the nation, at $2,394. Entry-level rents for each city were estimated by averaging the rents of the least expensive rental units of each apartment community listed on While the Apartment Guide numbers are not representative of the entire rental market, they are more current than those reported in the ACS. To the extent that Apartment Guide’s estimates reasonably reflect current price pressures in the broader rental market, future ACS rental figures will likely show significant increases in rents and rental burdens in Williston and the Bakken.