I’ve tried, but I can't eat the view

  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 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 pick-ups and compact sedans vastly outnumber lumbering SUVs. This is despite the nearby treacherous winter mountain passes and thousands of miles of rutted dirt logging roads.

There are also Missoula traditions to consider, all supported by nickel-and-dime contributions rather than by millionaires or corporate sponsors.

The public radio station fundraiser 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. The joyous celebration raises more than $350,000 in only one week.

Not to mention 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 that 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 many longtime residents like me to leave -- or, at the least, this will prevent their children from becoming homeowners. 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 locals, according to a 2003 report by the Rural Collaborative. Moreover, about 28 percent of residents cannot afford to pay fair market rent where the vacancy rate in this picturesque burg on the banks of the Clark Fork River is a scant 1-to-2 percent.

Meanwhile, most logging and mining jobs have been replaced by low-paid jobs in the service and retail trade. But 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, more people keep coming. The population increased a third over the last decade to 57,000 and is 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 with cyber jobs or retirement checks in hand.

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

The trend isn’t limited to Missoula, says researcher Deb Halliday with Missoula’s Woman’s Opportunity and Resource Development, Inc. Similar sized towns like Park City, Utah, Medford, Ore., Rapid City, S.D., Fargo, N.D., and Coeur d’Alene and Boise, Idaho, all face similar quandaries of where to house blue collar citizens.

When you run the working class out of town the social costs 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, childcare and education as community-borne social costs related to inadequate housing.

Education is one of the primary arenas, 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 warmly 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 a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He’s still renting and writing in Missoula, Montana.