West Texas Wonders:
“How Screwed Are You” If You Don’t Work In Oil In The Permian Basin? It Depends.

By Mitch Borden

It doesn’t take much to see the Permian Basin’s economy is doing pretty well right now. Just look at Midland and Odessa, the two cities’ unemployment rate is around two percent, wages are high and property values are rising.

It won’t be a surprise to anyone the reason for this is oil, and if you’re working in the industry you may be doing pretty well. But all of this led one listener to submit this question to our West Texas Wonders series:

“If you don’t work in the oil field in Odessa, how screwed are you?”

Before launching into this question, Marfa Public Radio asked around to see whether people agreed and the short answer: it depends.

The cost of living has gone up to a point over the past few years where it’s difficult for people in and out of the oil industry to keep up, especially when it comes to housing.

Ambr Burch lives in a small one bedroom apartment in Midland. (Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio)

To say it’s hard to find a nice, affordable place to live in the Permian Basin right now is an understatement. Just ask Ambr Burch. Two dogs, a couple of cats, one fish, Burch, her son, and her boyfriend all squeeze into a small apartment for $1,300 a month — which is about the average rent in Midland and Odessa.

Burch and her boyfriend are living paycheck to paycheck, and it’s clear they think about money a lot. Taped to the back of their front door are lined pieces of paper tracking what bills need to be paid and how much the couple will make this month.

Both she and her boyfriend work, but Burch still describes herself as a stay-at-home mom. She waits tables most days and he works in the oil fields. But even with a combined income, it’s only enough to get by.  

Bringing in $5,000 a month may sound like a lot, but when your bills are super high it goes by fast,” said Burch. 

Ambr Burch and her son. (Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio)

When Burch first came to Midland a year ago she had no idea how hard it was going to be to make ends meet. Her best advice for anyone thinking about making the move is “Either find someone who’s in the oil field or get into it yourself. That’s really the only way you’re going to make it.”

Last year, things were so tough, Burch had to get help paying rent from a local non-profit called Helping Hands of Midland. The group’s executive director Mary Hardin said the group is spending about $26,000 a week helping people who’ve fallen on hard times.

“If it’s a bust, they’re out of work. If it’s a boom, they can’t afford to live here,” said Hardin.

After oil production started ramping back up in 2016, the demand for and the cost of housing shot up along with it. Hardin said a lot of the financial aid the group gives out goes toward hotel rooms, rent assistance, and mortgage payments.

Burch uses her dining area as a makeshift room for her young son. (Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio)

People are still moving to the area though. There are plenty of jobs, and well-paying ones too, but costs are just so high that it doesn’t matter. And it’s not just housing that’s expensive — gas, groceries, taxes — everything’s gone up.

Hardin said she regularly buys bus tickets back home for people who’ve just arrived to look for work because they just can’t make it.

“They roll in and they have a job in a day or two, but it’s two or three weeks before their drug test are back or they can get a paycheck,” said Hardin. “ By then they’re so out of money it’s not even funny.”

By her estimates, it’d take around  $50,000 for a household of four to just barely scrape by. That’s nearly double the average income for a person in Midland and Odessa. Housing makes up the biggest chunk of that cost, but some people get lucky. Even the ones who don’t work in the oil industry — like Jacob Chadwick.

He and his wife pay $1,000 a month for their apartment. Chadwick described it as a “nice two bedroom. We actually have a fenced in backyard and it has a fireplace which is useless in West Texas, but we have it nonetheless.”

It’s easy to spot hiring signs around Midland and Odessa.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that leisure, hospitality, and retail jobs increased in the region by 2,200 positions from 2017 – 2018.

Chadwick is paying way below market price for his place. He said a comparable apartment in the area would probably go for $1,800. Chadwick is a barista at a Barnes & Nobles Starbucks in Midland. He really likes his job even though he only makes a few dollars above minimum wage.

“There’s just something cathartic about making coffee for me,” said Chadwick. “It’s just soothing.”

The rest of his family’s expenses are mostly covered by his wife, who teaches 6th grade. They can’t really afford to pay more in rent. If it does go up, Chadwick said he’s prepared to leave, because he doesn’t want to see his family’s quality of life drop dramatically.

He also really doesn’t want to work in the oil fields. Chadwick said, “I have a wife and a daughter. If I worked in the oil field I would never see my family and that’s not how I want to live.”

What Chadwick is really crossing his fingers for is that things will cool off soon.

“Hopefully the oilfield busts,” said Chadwick, laughing.

That way, he explained, his rent would go down even more.

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West Texas Wonders is a storytelling initiative from Marfa Public Radio that invites you to take part in the stories we cover. Visit marfapublicradio.org/curious for more information.