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What Midland's Growing Pains Mean For Families Settling in the Permian Basin

Gage, Maggie, and Abby Nelson (Diana Nguyen / Marfa Public Radio)

By Diana Nguyen and Carlos Morales

In the early twentieth century, oil and gas companies began building housing for their workers and their families. The housing — often in remote stretches of Texas — had many of the amenities a family could want.

But for some moving to the country’s oil and gas hub today, things can be a little more complicated. A tight housing market and stretched resources are testing the likelihood of families settling in Midland.

Finding a house to buy in Midland can be tricky. But Maggie and Gage Nelson lucked out and found one last year for $297,000.

Their two-story, 2,600-square-foot home is known as the 'legacy edition,' its located in a new development on the outer edges of Midland.

"It's probably like any new build community for the middle class in America," says Gage Nelson, who's sitting at his dining table with his wife Maggie and their 8-month-old daughter, Abby.

The young family found themselves in the middle of the Permian Basin in an unconventional way. Maggie was an art teacher for several years, while Gage had aspirations of pursuing musical theatre. But Gage was eventually attracted to the career opportunities the oil and gas industry was offering. So, they made the plunge and both got jobs at Shell.

Last year, they found a home in Midland, but it's not exactly what they hoped — even with a $330,000 budget.

"We feel it's a pretty good budget," says Gage. "I mean, it's our first home and we weren't even like in the ballpark for some of the neighborhoods we would we want to be in."

The Nelsons were hoping to find something quaint, maybe historic, near a good school district that Abby could eventually attend. But they couldn’t find anything like that within their budget. In Midland, the average selling price in June was around $350,000. For renters, the average price for a one bedroom apartment in Midland is near $1,400/month.

But the market wasn't always like this.

"Historically, the attraction for employees to come to Midland years ago was our housing prices," says Bill Lanier, a real estate agent in Midland."They could buy a house for half the price and live like a king on the same salary. Well, it's turned around now."

Lanier says the market is aggressive — buyers see fewer homes and have to make decisions quickly, often within a day. But as a native Midlander, the agent thinks the city is a great place to settle down, despite the pressures families face when it comes to buying a home.

For the Nelsons, however, they’re not so sure they want to put down roots here.

"As far as the people that have lived in Midland forever I think it's kind of unfair to them — people like us," says Maggie.

She’s aware of the impacts transient families like hers pose to Midland’s culture. They see the oil town as a temporary stay, instead of a place to settle. 

Today, Midland is struggling with keeping teachers and physicians around. As the population has continued to grow, there simply aren’t enough personnel to fill the positions that make a town livable.  

"I feel that there are people who are from here and there are people who are not from here who all are striving for that same thing," says Maggie Nelson. "They want Midland to have that community, like those parks the recreation, the arts, the education — they want all those things too."

But for now, the Nelsons feel like their current quality of life isn’t good enough to keep them around. This reticence is bad news for Midland stakeholders who worry about the city becoming a revolving door for families to temporarily cash in. So, the Midland Development Corporation, or the MDC, is stepping in. Sara Harris works for the organization.

"Without the supports like child care and education, Midland is in Danger of becoming a more transient community when we want to become a place where people can live, raise their family and get an education."

The MDC and the Nelsons share many of the same concerns. That’s why the MDC is working in to fill the gaps that prevent people from staying. They’re pumping the local sales tax revenue into health care, education and infrastructure projects. Some see this type of development — in the boom-bust nature of the oil and gas industry — as risky, but Harris believes otherwise.   

"Most of the oil industry executives in Midland indicated they see more stability in the market," says Harris.

People believe this boom might have some staying power. Companies are turning a profit — even at lower oil prices, thanks to hydraulic fracturing technology.  If the longterm indications turn out to be true, it’s good news for Midland. If they actually have a stable economy, they could improve the community for residents, and families like the Nelsons might want to stick around.

"We don’t want to be transient," says Maggie. "We don’t want to put an expiration date on the town, cause like I said, the people are very kind, we like them a lot."

The Nelsons aren't 100 percent sure about leaving. So there's still some time, maybe  Midland will convince them to stay. 

Carlos Morales is Marfa Public Radio's News Director.