Bozeman

The Cost of Housing and Essential-Worker Relocation in Booming Southwestern Montana

Casual conversations in Bozeman, Montana often turn to housing. Some verge on the tragic. I have spoken with several young couples who spent years saving for a down payment and were finally on the verge of making an offer – and then Covid hit, remote work intensified, and prices soared. As can be seen on the map, housing prices are high in Gallatin County as a whole, but in central Bozeman they approach the level found in California’s Bay Area. As a result, the city faces a mounting labor crisis, particularly for essential workers such as nurses. According to a confidential source, in a single unit of approximately 30 nurses in Bozeman’s Deaconess Hospital, 12 nurses quit in the past 12 months, with 9 citing housing costs as their reason.

Nurses and other financially stressed residents are abandoning Bozeman for more affordable places. Several nurses have relocated to Spokane, Washington, where wages are higher and housing is cheaper. Most have opted for another Montana city. As can be seen in the paired maps, nurses make more money in Yellowstone County (Billings) than in Gallatin County, and the cost of living is much lower.* Trade-offs, of course, must be factored in. Yellowstone County has a much higher crime rate than Gallatin County, and both its natural and cultural amenities are less appealing.

 

 

For those who value natural amenities above all and want to remain in Montana, options are more limited. Most of the scenic valleys of western Montana also have high housing costs. As can be seen on the ArcGIS “housing affordability” map, made just before the Covid price surge, Madison County, with fewer than 10,000 residents, was even less affordable than Gallatin. In such a low-population county, it does not take many affluent amenity seekers to skew the market upwards. Housing is less costly, however, in a few western counties, such as Silver Bow (Butte), Deer Lodge (Anaconda), and Lewis & Clark (Helena).

Anecdotal evidence from casual conversations suggests that the favored destination of priced-out Bozeman residents is Helena. Surrounded by mountains, Helena is nestled in a scenic location, and as the state capital it has a descent array of cultural resources. More important, it is relatively affordable and its crime rate is relatively low.

 

 

 

 

Another popular relocation place is Anaconda in Deer Lodge County, a former copper-smelting city of some 9,000 people. After a long period of decline, Anaconda is again growing. As an extended headline in a recent article in the Montana Free Press (MTFP) reads, “Building on its past, Anaconda draws new residents seeking best of Montana: The long-struggling southwestern Montana town is gaining popularity with recreationists and homebuyers. Can it retain its historic character?” As the article notes:

Anaconda is the last best place of the last best places,” said Vanessa Romero, 39, who moved to Anaconda in 2017 from Boise, Idaho, and is opening a wine shop downtown.

This isn’t the typical Montana discovery tale. Movie stars aren’t buying sprawling ranches here. Tourists aren’t pouring into town, though they are coming at a steady trickle. The rich and famous aren’t flocking to the local ski area. Rather, Anaconda’s newcomers are often young couples and extended families who want a low-pressure lifestyle in a Montana community but have been priced out of other areas. The town is an example of a historically industrial community that is adapting to a recreation economy. …

We’re seeing the refugees of Missoula and Bozeman” and other rapidly growing towns in the West, said Adam Vauthier, executive director of Discover Anaconda, an economic development organization. “The other recreation towns in the vicinity just got so big.”

But will such cities as Anaconda and Helena retain their affordability?  Footloose and often well-compensated Zoom workers also find them attractive. And prices are increasing. As the Montana Free Press(MTFP) article notes, “the Multiple Listing Service shows a median home price of $294,000 in Anaconda, up 36.7% over the same time in 2021.” Some local residents are also concerned about the city’s changing demographic characteristics. As one resident told MTFP reporter Erin Everett, “’We want to get rid of the buffalo touchers’ … referring to visitors who get too close to bison in Yellowstone National Park.”

*As the paired maps also show, Golden Valley County is an even more advantageous location for nurses, but with only 823 residents, employment opportunities are limited.

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What Is a Zoom Town?

Bozeman, Montana is often described as a quintessential “Zoom town,” a city or small town that has experienced explosive growth owing to the relocation of remote workers since the beginning of the Covid pandemic. Bozeman is certainly booming, and many of its new residents do work remotely, usually through Zoom. But how widespread is this phenomenon, and where might other “Zoom Towns” be located?

Although many article have been written recently on Zoom towns, the term remains poorly defined, with most designations based on informal impressions. Maps showing Zoom town locations are all but non-existent. The only map that I was able to find comes from the Ownerly website, specializing in data for homeowners. This map was made to illustrate an article called “Zoom Towns USA: America’s Best Cities for Remote Workers.” Ownerly devised a metric to measure Zoom-town suitability by analyzing:

445 cities across the nation, looking at rent and housing prices, cost of living, safety data, level of broadband and free Wi-Fi coverage. Besides expanding our list of cities by nearly 50% from our 2021 Best Zoom Towns list, we also added new metrics that include cost and availability of childcare, restaurants and coworking spaces.

The resulting map is reproduced here. Ownerly’s “best” Zoomtowns are concentrted in the northeastern quadrant of the country, with Wisconsin and Pennsylvania leading the list. But ideal though they may be, few of the towns and cities on this map are commonly deemed “Zoom towns.”  Consider, for example, a map showing Wikipedia’s “examples of Zoom towns and regions.” Intriguingly, none of these places makes the Ownerly list. Wikipedia’s Zoom towns are concentrated in the West, with California in the lead position.

Other sources have their own lists, often focused on a particular part of the country. Rate.com emphasizes towns in the Rocky Mountain region, calling special attention to Lewistown, Idaho; Walla Walla, Washington,; and Caspar Wyoming. Northwest News, focusing on the Northwest, focuses on Bend, Oregon while also mentioning Washington’s Methow Valley and San Juan Islands; Kelowna in British Columbia; Sandpoint, Idaho; and (yet again) Bozeman Montana. A BBC article on Zoom towns begins with a discussion of Fayetteville, Arkansas while also mentioning Sandpoint, Idaho; Moab, Utah; and Durango, Colorado. The article stresses the location of Zoom towns in “rural enclaves.”

Rural enclaves certainly do not dominate Wikipedia’s list of exemplary Zoom towns. Roughly half of the places on the Wikipedia list are suburbs with populations over 100,000. Such cities were growing quickly before Covid and are within the normal commuting range of their metropolitan cores. Placing such cities in the same category as Aspen, Colorado; Truckee, California; and Bethel, Maine might be a bit misleading.

A rigorous definition of Zoom town would emphasize population growth since 2020 and the percentage of workers working remotely. The latter piece of information is not easily obtainable. Using LinkedIn data, however, a 2021 Make It article claims that:

      These small cities have the highest proportion of remote work applications:

    1. Bend, Oregon: 41.8%
    2. Asheville, North Carolina: 38.7%
    3. Wilmington, Delaware: 35.9%
    4. Johnson City, Tennessee: 35.2%
    5. Eugene, Oregon: 34.9%

These larger cities have the highest proportion of remote work applications:

    1. Cape Coral, Florida: 33.1%
    2. Charleston, South Carolina: 31.6%
    3. Tampa Bay, Florida: 29.6%
    4. Jacksonville, Florida: 29.4%
    5. Orlando, Florida: 29.2%

Based on the information contained in this GeoCurrents post, Bend, Oregon is a good candidate for the title of America’s quintessential Zoom town. Bend was booming, however, well before it was Zooming; its population surged from 20,000 in 1990 to 99,000 in 2020.

 

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Montana’s Changing Electoral Geography

Although Montana has usually opted for Republican candidates in U.S. presidential elections, it was until recently something of a “purple” state, often dividing its votes relatively evenly between the two main political parties. As can be seen in the map series on the left, it has been trending in a decidedly red direction. In 2008, Barack Obama received 47 percent of Montana’s votes; in 2016, Hillary Clinton got only 35.7 percent.

As can be seen on these maps, Montana’s patterns of electoral geography have changed as well. The first two maps (1948 and 1960) show a north/south divide, with the south favoring Republicans and the north favoring Democrats. Many counties, however, were almost evenly split, with few experiencing landslide elections. These patterns disappear in the later maps. The north/south divide is now only vaguely evident, and landslide elections are common, at least in the Republican-voting east. Several counties have switched their party alignment. Cascade (Great Falls) formerly trended blue, but is is now reliably red. As the second map show, Cascade County even saw a minor red-shift from 2016 to 2020 (moving from a  57.1 % to a 58.46 % Trump vote). Gallatin County (Bozeman) has moved in the opposite direction. As recently as 2004, Gallatin voted Republican. It is now reliable blue – and getting bluer. It remains, however, Montana’s most libertarian county.

 

 

 

 

County-level maps of the Trump and Biden vote in 2020 reveal some interesting but subtle patterns. At the crudest level, the state’s main geographical divide now separates the east from the west. Although most western counties are still solidly red, several of the more populous ones are blue. Equally notable, no western county gave more than three-quarters of its votes to Trump. The statistical website 538 thus maps Montana’s western congressional district as leaning Republican, in contrast its solidly Republican eastern district. Twelve eastern counties gave more than 80 percent of their votes to Trump. But Biden did win two eastern counties and came very close in a third. As we shall see in tomorrow’s post, all three of these counties have Native American majorities.

 

 

The main electoral geographical divide in the United States now pits metropolitan areas against small towns and rural areas. This pattern, however, is only vaguely apparent in Montana’s county-level data. As can be seen in the paired maps, the most sparsely settled counties gave the highest percentage of their votes to Trump, and several relatively densely populated western counties supported Biden. But Montana’s population leader, Yellowstone County (Billings), solidly backed Trump, and several rural counties that are demographically dominated by Native Americans voted for Biden.

 

 

Montana’s rural/urban divide is more clearly evident at the precinct level. Consider Silver Bow County, which is politically consolidated with the city of Butte. Historically, Silver Bow was Montana’s bluest county, its many miners consistently supporting Democratic candidates. Today, the mines are largely shuttered, and the city now specializes in reclaiming toxic sites. It is still blue, although not to the extent that it formerly was. As can be seen, central Butte remains dark blue, whereas most of the outlying areas of Silver Bow County are red. The electoral maps of Billings, Helena, and Livingston all show blue urban cores surrounded by red rural hinterlands. Even the small town of Havre on the Great Plains, population 9,362, had one light blue precinct in 2020. On the other side of the ledger, two of Montana’s largest cities, Great Falls and Kalispell, had no blue precincts in 2020. But they are not as red as their surrounding areas.

 

 

 

A few rural areas and small towns in Montana that are not on native American reservations now habitually vote for Democratic candidates. The college towns of Bozeman and Missoula are both surrounded by rural blue precincts, although they are not as blue as those in the urban cores. Several remote towns and rural areas situated in areas with abundant natural amenities are distinctly blue. Big Sky, noted for its luxury ski resort, falls into this category, as do the small towns of Gardiner and Cooke City, adjacent to Yellowstone National Park. Red Lodge, also near Yellowstone and adjacent to the spectacular Beartooth Highway, falls into the same category. Near Glacier National Park one finds the small blue towns of West Glacier and Whitefish. Nearby Columbia Falls, however, is decidedly red. This difference reflects demographic sorting tendencies: Whitefish became an early center of outdoor recreation and environmentalism, which in turn attracted newcomers with similar interests and values. As Bill Bishop argued in The Big Sort more than a decade ago, Americans are increasingly moving to places that that match their political orientations.

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Recent Population Growth — and Decline — in Montana

(Note: As I am spending the summer in Montana to be with my granddaughters and their parents, a number of forthcoming post will focus on the state.)

As can be seen in the map on the left, Montana is a booming state, posting the third largest rate of population growth (in percentage terms) in the United States from 2020 to 2021. In the 2022 election, Montana will gain a second seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, which it had lost in 1993 due to lagging population growth at the time. Montana is still a sparsely settled state, with the third lowest population density in the country (after Alaska and Wyoming). Its population surge, moreover, is relatively recent. As can be seen in the second map, from 2010 to 2020 it experienced a moderate rate of growth (9.6%), higher than the national average (7.4%), but well below those of neighboring Idaho (17.3%) and North Dakota (15.8%), as well as nearby Utah (18.4%).

 

 

 

 

As might be expected, Montana’s recent population expansion is very unevenly distributed. Whereas some counties are experiencing sizzling grown, others continue to decline. Growth is concentrated in the mountainous west, whereas decline is pronounced across much of the Great Plains in the east. But as can be seen in the map on the left, two far-eastern counties (Richland and Carter) experienced rapid growth from 2010 to 2020, defying the regional norm. This map, however, is somewhat misleading; as Richland and Carter are sparsely settled countries, small increases in absolute numbers translate into rapid proportional growth. A gain of a mere 255 residents in Carter resulted in a 22% growth rate over the decade. Previously, the tendency had been one of steady decline. In 1920 the county had 3,972 residents, dropping to 1,415 by 2020.

 

The growth in Richland County from 2010 to 2020 is easily explained; adjacent to the booming oilfields of eastern North Dakota, it became something of a bedroom community for housing-short Williston, ND. But as the oil boom has receded, so too has Richland County. As can be seen in some of the maps posted below, the county lost population from July 2020 to July 2021. Explaining the growth in Carter, one of the most remote counties in the lower 48 states, is more challenging. A recent article in the excellent Montana Free Press, however, is quite helpful. A newly paved road improved access to eastern South Dakota, another area of recent population expansion (due in part to the natural amenities of the Back Hills region). The article also cites a healthy county budget, owing in part to transit fees from energy pipelines, and, unlikely as it might seem, dinosaur tourism. Ekalaka, Carter’s county seat, is evidently a high point on Montana’s so-called Dinosaur Trail.

To help readers make sense of changing population patterns in Montana, I have made several versions of my population-change-by-county maps (posted below). As can be seen in one of these iterations, growth has been concentrated in and around Montana’s largest cities, although Great Falls has lagged behind. Later posts will explore some of these patterns in more detail.

The most recent census data, covering the period from July 2020 to July 2021, shows a continuation of most of the trends seen in the 2010-2020 period. Although most Montana countries grew sharply during this time of COVID, the northern Great Plains continued in its seemingly inexorable decline. All of Montana’s larger cities, except Great Fall and Butte, saw rapid growth. So did Ravalli County in the scenic Bitterroot Valley, a zone of high rural population density (by Montana standards). Also of note is the growth rate of Flathead County in the northwest surpassing that of Gallatin County (which includes Bozeman) in the southwest. This somewhat surprising; as an expanded headline in the Montana Free Press notes, “Montana’s fastest-growing city last year? It wasn’t Bozeman. New Census Bureau estimates chart Montana’s population shifts during the first full year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Kalispell led the pack.” This article, by Eric Dietrich, is well worth reading, especially for Dietrich’s superb cartography. (Note that there are a few discrepancies between his map and mine; although I have re-checked the data, his figures may be more accurate.)

 

 

 

 

The competition between Bozeman and Kalispell is interesting. Intriguingly, Kalispell is Montana’s only significant city with no “blue” (Democratic voting) precincts, although the nearby tourism-oriented town of Whitefish is a different matter. Bozeman, in contrast, is markedly blue, as is Gallatin County as a whole. Gallatin’s smaller towns and most of its rural areas, however, are decidedly red. I have posted details from one of Eric Dietrich’s excellent Montana electoral maps, also published in the Montana Free Press. Later posts will explore Montana’s changing electoral geography in more detail.

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

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