Uncommon Ground

Expensive Rural Montana

Half the people America elected to work for us in Washington, D.C. seem blinded by anger, the other half distracted by shiny ideology

By Mike Jopek

We drove to the local grocer to get some provisions. We adopted a barn kitten. The old farm dog isn’t too happy about it. They’re cohabitating OK, mostly the old-timer ignores the teenaged cat’s impulsiveness.

A hundred bucks later we drove back to the farm with pet food and less than a quart of seven-dollar mayonnaise. Mayonnaise made of oil, vinegar and eggs was now quite expensive. Ignore all pet costs, I’m reminded.

Montana enjoys low unemployment numbers. It’s higher in the Flathead, but locals are working hard to pay the bills which never end. Never feels about right after tending to dad’s bills after he died early last year. His income taxes are still due this month. Maybe he’ll get a postmortem tax rebate from Montana that mom could put toward rent.

Mom spends all their hard-earned Social Security benefits for the year to pay for eight-months of rent in the valley. It’s an exciting time in rural Montana, stressful and expensive. That’s true in most of rural America.

Housing and rent feel like big city prices. The men running Montana are touting how well we’re performing. They’re lucky that living feels like everything’s free. That’s not true for workers.

Half the people America elected to work for us in Washington, D.C. seem blinded by anger, the other half distracted by shiny ideology. Nobody likes nobody and our nation steamrolled into another political cycle of gridlock where the best soundbites win the press while the rest of us wait for action.

Housing and rent are local and state issues. Montana could help but oddly chose to outlaw locally effective housing ordinances. Shelter remains the highest real-dollar component of Montana inflation. Seven-dollar mayonnaise is cheap compared to a year’s worth of rent in the Flathead.

The pandemic spiked housing prices by 40% nationwide, significantly more in rural Montana in places with good amenities. Rapidly rising lending rates, an overstock of short-term rentals, and scant worker-priced housing inventories spells big trouble for rural economies in middle Montana.

Those in charge again remind us that the economy looks good with people making lots of money. The locals going to work every day, earning a living with their hands and minds, likely have real understandings of the actual cost to a rural lifestyle. Things sure got expensive in rural Montana over recent years.

The real-life strain endured by working households across rural Montana hurts everyone. Some Montanans moved and Americans with higher incomes flooded the valley. It’s a normal cycle repeated throughout history. It’s just our turn. Doesn’t feel good. Doesn’t much matter.

Wrecking the integrity of existing neighborhoods through state mandates without a single local hearing is a bad solution. Rowhouses, condos, townhouses, duplexes and multiplexes are fine, but without affordability guardrails, the state is guaranteeing more housing stock that’s only affordable to people earning wages from places like San Francisco.

Rural Montanans, existing homeowners and downtown businessowners pay for local infrastructure and absorb the brunt of rapid property tax increases. If the state is mandating neighborhood density increases, it better put up some infrastructure dollars. Things like sewer, water and roads are not cheap. It’s a bad idea for the state to dismantle local control and unfair to recharge old-timers for newcomers’ services.

Last year’s help from Washington to fund local infrastructure, reduce senior medicine costs, and manufacture homegrown computer chips is proving effective. This year’s red-meat-sounding Congress could make mayonnaise cheap again, or better yet, send federal dollars to our local Housing Authority to help workers.

Actions speak louder than words. Everyone knows there’s a housing crisis plaguing workers throughout rural Montana. Housing costs are way above rural wages. Put the rhetoric aside men, come together, and get the work done.

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