Such a Bargain

The people in charge of our local governments are faced with some of the biggest policy questions of our generation

By Mike Jopek

The dream of affordability for locals seeking homeownership faded as promptly as the springtime rainbow on the eastern skyline following an abrupt rainstorm in the Rocky Mountains.

It’s not like the wages earned by the valley’s front line workers were ever spectacularly high. The work suddenly became shockingly front-line dangerous during a national pandemic. Yet not enough of the valley’s finest workers earn enough to qualify for a median-priced home loan.

It remains a tough time for young professionals. And it feels like it’s about to get worse.

Locals earning good wages are easily outbid by fast-moving, out-of-state money from places where the wages are significantly higher. People living in hot spot areas of the nation are flocking here like migrating songbirds to buy property at prices they say are super affordable.

Montana had consistently been the safe haven in the country, enjoying some of the lowest communicable disease infection rates. Our governor acted promptly as news broke that COVID-19 was traveling our way.

It’s well established that this monster disease spreads across the planet by travel. The virus jumps person-to-person and creeps its way across the planet with deadly longevity. Big sickness slinked into small town America where local hospitals were unprepared. Destination areas like the Flathead were put on high alert.

Politicians say it’s all under control again, that the risk remains low, and hospitals stand ready. Risk management is what farmers like myself deal with when it comes to the weather and it seems to rarely work out quite as expected for a field of vegetables.

Montanans by and large sheltered at home, non-essential worker were laid off by the truckload as people took refuge to allow the pandemic to pass. Our sacrifice largely worked. Locals made our community safer. We’d prefer to keep it safe.

Politicians say that business can resume, that people should again earn a wage, and that our out-of-state visitors can carefully return without quarantine. It’s an exciting and apprehensive time. I see businesses and workers throughout the valley adapting the ways they think about what works during a pandemic and what’s important.

Realtors across Montana are reporting a flurry of out-of-state purchase activity as people flocking from more infected portions of our nation to seek safe refuge. I get it. If my family was living in New York City, I’d spend large amounts of savings to move us to rural America as fast as the Econoline would travel the highway.

My nephew works in coastal California and says that many of the tech-wage-earners will work from home for the foreseeable future. These workers are looking to rural, remote, recreational destination areas of the nation with good hospitals and fast internet. Who amongst us wouldn’t want to live in the best place on the planet while still maintaining their high-wage remote job?

It’s nearly impossible for most of the workers in our valley to compete with the real estate speculation that looks like it’s currently ramping up statewide.

The anecdotal stories of speculators buying multiple homes, of people buying homes unseen, and multiple bids on the same home at above appraised valuations keep coming.

The hum of the highway into town is back after the quiet of shelter, for places like Whitefish or Columbia Falls, sounding neither safe nor slow.

The people coming are nice and kind, soon a part of our community. No hugs, thanks, not yet anyway. This communicable disease hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s not going anywhere, and only a small percentage of Montanans have even been exposed.

The people in charge of our local governments are faced with some of the biggest policy questions of our generation. Those sitting on our local school boards and city councils suddenly have plenty more to ponder.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.