By Blake Ellis
In the oil boomtowns of southern Kansas, enterprising residents are turning into real estate moguls, renting out everything from double-wide trailers to rooms in an old bank for as much as $2,000 a month.
Workers flocking to the area seeking high-paying jobs in nearby oil fields and windfarms have created a housing shortage in these small farming towns, causing the rents to skyrocket.
Bobbi Olivier, a native of Harper, Kan., a town nestled right in the heart of the oil activity, left the oilfields of Oklahoma last year in order to buy used double-wide trailers, fix them up and rent them out, among other ventures.
She's been buying trailers in Wichita and driving them an hour south to a lot near the main drag in Danville, a town next to Harper. She then takes the wheels off and tears them apart, adds plumbing, power, carpeting, mirrors to make the rooms look bigger and extra fixtures to make them feel less like a trailer.
"I tend to be an outside-the-box person," said Olivier, who also operates oil wells on her property and holds local rodeos on her family farm. "My goal was to get housing available as quickly and efficiently as possible. I've lived in a modular and a double-wide trailer for a lot of years myself, and they're very nice."
The four trailers are already booked by oil workers for when they will become available at the beginning of July. Meanwhile, Olivier has been receiving five to 10 calls a week from people who she just can't accommodate yet.
That may not sound that pricey for a place like New York, but for Harper and the surrounding towns, where two-bedroom homes have rented for only $400 a month for years, it's a small fortune.
Yet, as more workers move to the area, $2,000-a-month rents are far more common -- and prospective landlords are getting far more creative.
Along with her trailer-home project, Olivier recently converted a former bank into six "executive suites" -- each complete with one bedroom, a kitchen and a bathroom -- and she has rented all of them to an oil company. The units rent for between $1,750 and $2,100 a month and currently house 14 workers.
Olivier has also bought and renovated four rundown houses and five commercial buildings -- including another bank, a dental office and even a laundromat -- and fixed them up in order to create housing and office space for oil and wind workers. In all, she said she is currently housing about 35 workers in the ten properties she owns.
After trying to get in on the housing boom in North Dakota, only to find that property values were already too high to make them worthwhile investments, Rocky Hufman, 45, decided to get a fresh start in the new oil play of Kansas.
Hufman has been flipping abandoned homes in Harper County and renting them out for $700 to $1,100 a month since March. He said he's sure he could get more money for them if he tried, but he doesn't want to rip anyone off.
A couple of months ago, he bought an unoccupied house for $32,000, touched up the paint, fixed the porch, trimmed the bushes and trees and cleaned the yard -- and now he's renting it to an oil worker for $1,000 a month.
"All the properties were already highly overvalued when I got to North Dakota -- it felt like I was two-and-a-half years behind and could never get ahead of it," said Hufman. "I came here to get out in front of this boom. But it's still a big risk. If this boom goes bust, I go bust."
While it's been a lucrative business so far, Hufman said he's determined not to make money at the expense of local residents. After seeing landlords kick people out of their homes in North Dakota because they knew they could get more money from oil workers, Hufman said he refuses to buy an occupied property. He wants to create enough alternative housing for workers that locals won't get kicked out of their homes this time, he said.
To do this, Hufman is working for builder Vap Property Solutionsto build a 60-unit apartment complex from the ground up in Anthony. Each unit is slated to rent for more than $2,000, and the company is in talks with a major oil company about renting the entire complex to its workers.
Meanwhile, the town of Anthony's decade-old horse and dog racing track is being turned into an apartment complex. In addition, the owners of the constantly-booked Anthony Motel are building a new 45-room hotel to fit the overflow of guests. And the economic development director of Harper County is transforming the 101-year-old Carnegie library into an office for an oil company's workers.Anyone with a little spare space is able to make an extra buck. Ray and Dana Young, ages 69 and 59, respectively, are supplementing their retirement income by renting out four beds in their basement for $500 a month each.
The Youngs put up flyers in local stores advertising the spaces earlier this month, and a group of wind farm workers called to reserve the beds within a week. The $500 monthly rate is a lot better than the $350 a week they were paying to stay at a motel, said Dana.
But even as all of this extra housing is being created for incoming workers, some locals are still losing out. One couple, Eileen and Eddie Morris, said they were even kicked out of the home they had rented for 11 years when the owner decided to take advantage of rising property values and sell it to someone who would pay more money.
"It's all about the money, it's all about the greed," said Eileen. "These people that own homes, they want money ... now that people have come to town that have money, that's what they want."
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