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
Missoula’s traditions are also still
working-class, supported by nickel-and-dime contributions rather
than by millionaires or corporate sponsors.
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.
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.
of the logging and mining jobs have been replaced by low-paid jobs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
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
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.