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
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 --
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
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Meanwhile, most logging and mining jobs have been replaced by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
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
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.
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
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