Friday, August 27, 2021

Key West In Montana

All to often we get that terrible tendency to personalize everything going on around us and to think we are the only ones with a particular problem. Gentrification in Key West has been an issue for sixty years, such that residents from the 60s look at Key West nowadays and ask themselves what happened. I do the same with much less longevity. It turns out Montana is in the same boat apparently. It's an interesting read, and I should point out I would be interested to know if the influx of wealthy residents is seasonal or year round. They didn't say.

 Who can afford to live in the American west?

The region, which long had the lowest rate of income inequality in the US, is shifting to one of haves and have-nots – and it’s happening fast

by  in Butte, Montana

I’ve long been accustomed to people outside the American west knowing next to nothing about my home state of Montana. Real things people have said to me over the years: is it part of Canada? Overrun with nothing but meth? A mythical place with big skies and nobody but macho cowfolk?

Of course, none of those statements are true. But in the last couple of years, Montana has become a destination among both the traveling and remote-work class – and my home is changing as fast as in any previous western land rush.

Take a walk in Bozeman, and you are now more likely to find outdoorsy and stylish visitors wearing Lululemon than anything resembling the old wild west.

On Main Street, visitors can find upscale Thai food and new, high-end hotels – gone are the ski bums and cowboys of yesteryear. A building that houses the funky old record store is up for sale, as is one of the city’s last legendary dive bars. An hour up the road, millionaires hide away at the Big Sky resort and the ultra-exclusive Yellowstone Club, where membership costs hundreds of thousands – plus the purchase of a multimillion-dollar home.

But drive a few minutes to the outskirts of town, and you will find a different picture – one that tells the darker story of a fast and ferocious wave of gentrification.

Tucked away in a quiet street, service workers are living in their trucks and trailers, sometimes even pitching tents in the grass. They’re the picture of displacement out west, the collateral victims of an affordability crisis created by Montana’s booming popularity as a place for people with money.

In June, the median sale price for a single-family home in Bozeman – a county of 115,000 inhabitants – was $720,000, up 49% from the same month a year earlier, according to a local realtors’ association. The US census reports the county gained 30,000 new people in the last decade, as the sprawl of new homes and condos for miles can attest. Local wages simply can’t compete in a market flooded with all-cash offers.

Renters are not faring any better. Average rent on a two-bedroom in Bozeman rose above $2,000 earlier this year. Between 2012 and 2019, the city says the price of rental properties increased by 35-40% – and that’s before the pandemic rush to Montana overwhelmed a community already under strain.

Most of the wider Rocky Mountain west is undergoing similar upheaval. From Missoula to Moab to Boise, housing prices are off the charts, and the rush inward is forcing people out. A plethora of news stories has focused on wealthy paradise seekers, while ignoring who and what is being lost, trampled over and forgotten.

The region, which long had the lowest rate of income inequality in the country, is shifting to one of haves and have-nots – and it’s happening fast.

In Bozeman, parking can be hard to come by at trail heads even during the “shoulder” seasons. An influx of newcomers has created more traffic than usual.
In Bozeman, parking can be hard to come by at trail heads even during the “shoulder” seasons. An influx of newcomers has created more traffic than usual. Photograph: Janie Osborne

Michael Schmidt moved to Bozeman 20 years ago from Oregon, drawn by the wide-open spaces, the friendly laid-back community, and the affordable lifestyle.

For the past eight years, he’s worked full-time as a cook at Ihop and with overtime, he’ll probably earn $50,000 this year – an income slightly above the median for Montana workers. Even with this salary, he couldn’t afford to stay in his apartment last year when his landlord raised the rent.

Saving up thousands for a deposit, first and last month’s rent on a new place is proving to be a struggle for Schmidt. Instead, he and a buddy moved into a fifth-wheel camp trailer and parked it behind the lumber store. Hunkered down in what amounts to temporary housing, Schmidt works and watches the community he fell in love with splinter. Labor shortages amid the pandemic have given him more hours at work, but it hasn’t changed the larger problem. “A lot of people have left,” he says. “I had a lot of friends leave because the cost of living is tremendous.”

Schmidt jokes that “low-income” in Bozeman now means anyone who makes less than $70,000 a year. As the city’s unhoused population rises and workers both blue and white collar flee to cheaper towns and other states, it’s hard to not see his logic.

“For the longest time, we referred to Jackson, Wyoming – a draw for decades for the wealthy seeking a piece of the west – as the cautionary tale, and now I feel like Bozeman is the cautionary tale,” says Brian Guyer, the city’s affordable housing coordinator.

In many ways, this state is weathering gentrification that’s already consumed places like Jackson, or Vail and Aspen in Colorado. The catch is that in Montana, there’s little opportunity to move to a different town with jobs that pay enough to sustain the cost of living.

Frank Hilton, who came to Bozeman from Washington state, stands in front of a Walmart sign offering new employees $20.50 an hour.
Frank Hilton, who came to Bozeman from Washington state, stands in front of a Walmart sign offering new employees $20.50 an hour. Photograph: Janie Osborne

Guyer says the number of unhoused people in Bozeman who use the city’s shelter – a warehouse full of tidy cots, donated clothes and food – has doubled to more than 100 in the last year. The city is scrambling to build tiny houses, but the displacement isn’t slowing.

“Every week we have calls from people who have been on a month-to-month lease on a property here in Bozeman, and the landlord informs them that they will not be renewing it,” says Guyer. “Those people are finding alternatives, like sleeping in their car. We’re seeing a big increase in the number of urban campers.”

Inside the shelter, an older woman soaks her feet in a tub of hot water while scrolling through her phone. Donna, who didn’t want to give her full name, is turning 65 in a couple of months and lives in her car. She works nights as a janitor and comes to the shelter during the day for some relief from the aches of working on her feet. She lost her apartment to rent hikes and hopes to save up enough money to go live with her kids in another state.

Bozeman, she says, has become a much colder, less hospitable place in recent years – and it’s time to leave.

By most standards, Sean Hawksford, a construction business owner, should not have struggled to buy a house. He had a budget of $600,000 and humble ambitions: he wanted a home for his growing family. He barely made it happen.

Several months ago, a friend sent me a photo of Hawksford standing on a street corner in downtown Bozeman holding up a sign that said: “Please sell me a home.” Hawksford and his wife, Jessica, who grew up in Bozeman, were preparing for the arrival of their first child and had saved up a big down payment. They were undercut by cash offers at every turn.

Hawksford’s story went viral and he got a steady stream of emails about his ordeal, along with a few insults he took in stride. On the 20th offer, after a search of more than six months, he and Jessica finally found a house a little further from downtown than they had hoped. The owner, sympathetic to their plight, wanted to sell it to his family for less than it was worth. Their little boy was born on the fourth of July and their house is big enough to accommodate a family of visitors, but his tactic isn’t possible for most people.

Sean Hawksford hangs the signs he used to find someone willing to sell him a house.
Sean Hawksford hangs the signs he used to find someone willing to sell him a house. Photograph: Janie Osborne

Justin Farrell, who grew up in Wyoming and is now a sociologist at Yale, documented the lives of the ultra-wealthy who move to the rural west in his book, Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West.

His research lends insight into why many of the people moving in simply don’t see the seething chaos of rising inequality. Wealthy people are often trying to “undergo a personal transformation of sorts” when they move west, but they don’t consider how that transforms communities.

“First when very wealthy people move into a place, they bring with them the culture and lifestyle they have. There’s a bar for what they expect in terms of services,” says Farrell.

Thus, a city like Bozeman gets a better variety of restaurants and bars, some better hiking trails and other perks, but when residents are priced out, who can afford to live there and enjoy the amenities? “The underlying structural issues are getting worse and a lot of that is caused by their presence,” says Farrell.

Bogert Pool, Bozeman’s public outdoor pool, has been closed on the weekends due to a shortage of employees. Many businesses in the area are facing employee shortages because of rising housing costs.
Bogert Pool, Bozeman’s public outdoor pool, has been closed on the weekends due to a shortage of employees. Many businesses in the area are facing employee shortages because of rising housing costs. Photograph: Janie Osborne

It’s a blindness that often leads to resentment. Without acknowledging the root of the problem, it is misdirected in reflexive ways, like insulting “Californians”. With little acknowledgement of growing inequality or how to deal with it, the conversation instead becomes a misguided game of finger-pointing, in which “Californian” or “Texan” is code for people who have more money than working Montanans.

The resentment can manifest in strange ways, like the election last year of Governor Greg Gianforte, a far-right Republican in a historically politically moderate state, formerly the wealthiest member of Congress, who made his money by selling a tech company he built in Bozeman. Gianforte moved to Montana from the East Coast and made his new political career by leaning hard into the white macho man trope – one who illegally hunts for wolves and once assaulted a former Guardian reporter – while promising to revitalize the state’s economy and cater to businesses.

When you drill down, the anger has rarely anything to do about the place newcomers come from. It’s nearly always about the growing wealth gap.

My own family arrived in Montana on that wave in the late 1890s from Ireland, but I grew up in Butte when the mining empire was collapsing in the 1980s. Then, Bozeman was mostly a conservative but fun college and cow town, just beginning to rise as a popular place for an outdoor-oriented class looking for cheap living and access to prime and uncrowded lands.

When Montana’s mining and timber industries collapsed, the state made a deliberate and often-criticized hard turn toward the tourism and service economy.

Many have compared the recent shift in power dynamics - immense wealth concentration and legions of underpaid workers - to the era of the Copper Kings a century ago, when mining tycoons battled over a copper empire. Then, a flood of struggling immigrants flooded into Butte and other places, onto lands violently stolen from their original inhabitants, where jobs were plentiful even if working conditions were abysmal. While it might seem everyone is moving to Montana, the rush was comparatively larger 100 years ago.

Ryanne Pilegram, like me, lived through the early waves of western gentrification as a child. She grew up on a ranch near Gold Creek, outside Missoula, and her family lost the property to the farm crisis in the 1980s. They moved to Missoula, where her dad couldn’t find work and her mom started a catering business.

A few years ago, Pilegram, now a sociologist at the University of Idaho, returned to Missoula for a work conference and stopped in a downtown coffee shop where she saw her family’s cattle brand was hanging on the wall.

Construction worker Dan Reed works on a new house in the Lakes at Valley West, a new residential construction area in Bozeman.
Construction worker Dan Reed works on a new house in the Lakes at Valley West, a new residential construction area in Bozeman. Photograph: Janie Osborne

Her family’s story, one that included so much pain and loss, had become a cutesy cowboy decoration for people who knew nothing of its history.

To Pilegram, whose book Pushed Out: Contested Development and Rural Gentrification in the US West documents the crisis through the lens of the town of Dover, Idaho, the question of rural west gentrification is one of inequality.

“Why do we want the brand on the wall, but we don’t want the ranches?” she asks.

After years of researching and living through rural gentrification, Pilegram believes the solution is to plan for it before it happens. Small towns need to ask difficult questions and be skeptical of growth. Until now, developers have had the upper hand and the result has been fractured and resentful communities.

“To me the question our communities need to grapple with is trying to get the community to have a plan and a vision for what they want, before someone comes in and tells them what that vision is,” she says. “The way we allow development to happen is developers come in with plans that get approved by the city. What if, instead, we asked all the people who make minimum wage ‘what do you want your community to look like?’

“We’ve taken at face value the system we have. At some level it’s about stepping back and saying ‘why do we have to accept the way things are?’”

Yet Montana appears to be doing the opposite. The state government has done nothing to address it, and the erasure of working-class families and their struggle to stay is not solely a trick of Republican politics. During the 2020 election, even as housing prices soared, the issue registered barely a blip from either party.

Earlier this year, the state legislature blocked cities and towns from requiring affordable housing in new developments, and this spring, the Gianforte administration launched a “Come Home to Montana” campaign. It touts the possibilities of remote work, featuring photos and videos of smiling white families in parades, having barbecues and rafting the rivers.

“No matter how long you’ve been away, now is the time to come back to Montana. Bring your remote job to one of our many growing, community-focused towns,” the campaign urges.

Nowhere does it mention the difficulty of living in Montana on local wages.

After spending much of my adult life away, I did come back to Montana a few years ago, first to Missoula, and found a state changing quickly from the one I knew. A year ago, with housing prices soaring and the town growing less recognizable, I returned to Butte, where a giant Superfund site left by the mining industry seems to have kept most big-moneyed buyers away.

I’ve found the same old classism, but with some weird new twists. Today, that’s a dispersed art exhibit about Butte’s toxic mining sites showing in galleries and art museums in Bozeman, Missoula and elsewhere, but skipping entirely the communities where the damage was wrought.

Amid all this growing disconnect, absent solutions or plans, many Montanans are simply waiting to see what comes next. In Bozeman, Brian Guyer braces for things to get worse before they improve. The city’s affordable housing coordinator himself had to move out of town, 25 miles away to Livingston, when his landlord jacked up his rent.