The Great Migration

What sustained and accelerated population growth will mean for the Flathead

By Kellyn Brown

We recently highlighted the number of out-of-area homebuyers flooding the Flathead Valley. Local realtors have “never been busier” and, in some cases, are selling homes to people who haven’t even walked inside of them.

As we enter summer, that trend has only accelerated. In May, 2,115 sales closed in Flathead County. In June, that number increased to 2,124. Compared to the same two-month period last year, closed sales are up by 408, or nearly 11 percent. And remember, the real estate market had a solid year in 2019.

As the pandemic has upended the lives of millions of Americans, many of them are considering a lifestyle change, leaving large cities and snatching up homes in suburban areas and rural towns. This makes Montana an attractive destination, especially as more companies are allowing employees to work remotely.

It’s unclear what sustained and accelerated population growth will mean for our infrastructure and government services. What’s clear is that the price for a home in the valley has increased. Last month, the median sales price was $13,000 higher than a year prior and the average sales price was up nearly $20,000.

What’s also clear is people were already moving here before anyone had heard of COVID-19. In May, when most of the world was distracted by the coronavirus, the U.S. Census released its latest population estimates that measured growth between 2018 and 2019.

The agency says Montana added more than 8,000 residents and is now home to about 1,070,000 people. Flathead and Gallatin (home to Bozeman) counties made up more than half that growth, with their respective populations ballooning by 1,800 and 2,700 during the year. Other counties, like Missoula and Lewis and Clark, grew at a more modest pace.

Looking at the state’s largest cities over the last decade, Bozeman is by far outpacing everyone else, growing by 33.7 percent since 2010. Kalispell is second, swelling by 22.6 percent over the same time period and adding about 650 residents in the last year alone. During that same year, Whitefish and Columbia Falls each added about 300 people.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Census Bureau has begun its official count of Americans, which happens every 10 years. The virus hasn’t helped matters. While this is the first time U.S. residents can fill out their forms online, about four in 10 households have not responded, according to the agency.

Now workers are heading out into the field to begin tallying results in person. They will begin knocking on doors in August, even as some of them raise concerns over health risks. The deadline to complete the count has been extended to Oct. 31 and will have an outsized impact on Montana, with estimates showing the state gaining enough residents to land an additional seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. That is, if residents fill out their respective surveys.

Right now, our state’s online response rate of less than 56 percent is among the lowest the country. Along with a seat in Congress, the lack of participation could cost Montana in other ways — specifically in money we receive from the federal government that helps pay for roads and schools.

For better or worse, we’re growing. We might as well reap some of the benefits by filling out our Census forms.

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