Like I Was Saying

Growth and Consequences

Those who arrived to escape an expensive housing market accidentally made a new one here

By Kellyn Brown

In nearly every corner of the Flathead Valley you can see the growth. There are hundreds of multi-family units under construction in Kalispell alone and 600 more were just approved by the city council. From Columbia Falls to Bigfork homes are being built to meet the demand from the influx of new residents. And it’s still not nearly enough. Data recently published by the U.S. Census Bureau explains why.

Between July 1, 2020, and July 1, 2021, Flathead County actually had more deaths than births. Pregnancy rates nationwide have been declining for some time and COVID-19 spiked mortality rates here and across the country. The agency estimates that we naturally lost 142 people in our population. The net migration of new residents, however, more than made up the difference. 

During that year, according to the Census, the county added a staggering 3,681 residents – by far the most in a state that saw growth in all its urban areas as newcomers flocked here during the pandemic in search of more space and a better lifestyle. In all, Montana’s population swelled by 18,078 people. And, whether we like it or not, Flathead is now leading the state in growth, surpassing Gallatin County, which is home to Bozeman and is estimated to have grown by a whopping 3,211 people last year.

Elsewhere in the state, Yellowstone County grew by 2,101, Ravalli by 1,608, Missoula by 1,295 and Lewis and Clark by 1,130. All big numbers, but far below Flathead County, which as of the middle of last year was estimated to have 108,454 people. A number I’m sure has only grown since. 

Measured another way by comparing the Kalispell micropolitan area against all others across the United States, again, no one stacks up. While a few smaller communities have a higher percentage growth rate, none of them added more people. That’s right, among all mid-sized urban areas in the country, we grew the most. 

This state, and especially this region, are anomalies in the U.S., which saw its population grow at the slowest pace ever in 2021, just 0.1 percent, according to Census data. Many large cities shrunk during that time, with New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco combining to lose 700,000 residents. Part of the great migration was attributed to the skyrocketing cost of housing in metropolitan areas, which ironically has now become a fact of life in Montana. Except it’s worse because our population has continued to grow. 

Consider the growth in Flathead County alone. The average number of people per household in this country is a little more than 2.5 (down from 3.33 in 1960), so the new residents who arrived here between mid-2020 and mid-2021 would have needed an additional 1,472 housing units. It’s safe to say supply is not nearly keeping up with demand and, until in-migration begins to taper off a bit, it won’t.

Therein lies the problem. While this county’s population has increased steadily for decades, since 2012 the rate of that growth has begun accelerating. A decade ago, we were adding about 1,000 residents a year. Five years later we were annually growing by roughly 2,000 people. And now that number has exploded to more than 3,500.

Those who arrived to escape an expensive housing market accidentally made a new one here. I suppose that’s one way to eventually slow growth. 

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