I've tried, but I can't eat the view

  • Mark Matthews

  I’ve given up on one of the great American dreams — owning a home of my own. Why? Because it’s becoming impossible to find affordable housing in the West, even in the non-resort towns.

It’s easy to tell that Missoula, Mont., is still a working-class town. Just check out the traffic on the tree-shaded lanes, where Subaru front-wheel-drive station wagons, small pickup trucks and compact sedans vastly outnumber lumbering SUVs, despite the nearby treacherous winter mountain passes and the thousands of miles of rutted dirt logging roads.

Missoula’s traditions are also still working-class, supported by nickel-and-dime contributions rather than by millionaires or corporate sponsors.

The public radio station fund-raiser is a prime example. The station offers hundreds of eccentric premiums contributed by listeners to lure pledges from their neighbors. The premiums run the gamut from homemade cheesecakes to jams, and from candlelight dinners to wheelbarrows full of goat manure. It’s a joyous celebration that raises more than $350,000 in only one week.

Not to mention the volunteers who hand-carved horses for a Carousel For Missoula, or built the Dragon Hollow playground in a downtown park. You’ll also find New England contra dances put on by volunteers of the Missoula Folklore Society, a Day of the Dead parade, and the annual International Wildlife Film Festival. All big money-making events — not.

But the tenor of this town, which matured with the fortunes of loggers, millworkers and farmers, is changing, just like many other mid-sized towns across the West. Skyrocketing housing costs and real estate taxes, combined with declining wages, may soon force longtime residents like me to leave — or, at the least, to face the fact that our children will never be homeowners here. The same process that transformed small resort towns like Crested Butte, Colo., into playgrounds for the rich is infecting our working-class towns.

The average sales price of a new home in Missoula stands at $161,500, a 228 percent increase since 1990. That’s beyond the economic reach of about 58 percent of the locals, according to a 2003 report by the Rural Collaborative. Moreover, about 28 percent of residents cannot afford to pay fair-market rent in this picturesque burg on the banks of the Clark Fork River, where the vacancy rate is a scant 1-to-2 percent.

Meanwhile, most of the logging and mining jobs have been replaced by low-paid jobs in the service and retail trades. And with 10,000 college kids in town, there’s lots of competition for jobs that don’t pay a living wage.

Despite the inflated costs and slim job prospects, people keep coming: The population increased a third over the last decade to 57,000, and it’s projected to grow another 30 percent over the next 20 years. New homes are being constructed, mainly for outsiders, with price tags that are more expensive than the local economy can support. The "new pioneers" come supported by cyber-jobs, or arrive with their retirement checks in hand.

Some buy up quaint two-bedroom single-story homes on city lots, demolish them, then build mega-houses that tower above their neighbors. Others construct trophy homes, contributing to the outward sprawl into the foothills and forests.

The trend isn’t limited to Missoula, says researcher Deb Halliday with Missoula’s Women’s Opportunity and Resource Development, Inc. Towns such as Park City, Utah, Medford, Ore., Rapid City, S.D., Fargo, N.D., and Coeur d’Alene and Boise, Idaho, all face similar quandaries about where to house their blue-collar citizens.

When you run the working class out of town, the social consequences are significant, says Halliday, who has conducted similar studies in other parts of the country. She points to homelessness, domestic violence, expensive mental health care and child care as community-borne social costs related to inadequate housing. Education is another one, she says: "The more stable the home a child comes from, the more likely they are to succeed in school and later in the workforce."

There are some steps Western communities can take to protect their working-class citizens from being run over. Those include assisting nonprofit affordable housing developers, establishing a local housing trust fund, and supporting a Low Income Tax Credit program for homeownership. Communities can also pass zoning laws that force builders to include a certain percentage of affordable housing in new developments.

Unfortunately, independent-minded, private property rights-worshipping Westerners don’t take kindly to such ideas. I’ve already lived through one homeless phase in my lifetime, and I don’t intend to do it again. If it gets too gentrified around here, I’ll look for another town, one without a resort, university or single amenity to its name.

Mark Matthews is still renting and writing in Missoula, Montana.