Recently I hired someone to install a storm door and fix the weatherstripping on my townhouse. I had been trying to accomplish this task since last spring, but I could not corral anyone into doing it. I’d been adding expanding foam stripping that kept peeling off and inviting in the winter freeze. Finally a friend suggested I go to Lowe’s and ask them about installers, if I bought a door there. The guy at the Lowe’s door desk said yes, we contract with third-party installers, and then lowered his voice while his deskmate conveniently found somewhere else to be: “But I know someone who will do it for much less.”
All right, I’ll bite.
The next day I found myself working from home while this new dude measured my doorway, talking about all kinds of things. He told me he had just moved here from Orange County, California (if you are a Montanan you will instantly recognize this as a misstep) and had been surfing off Dana Point just a couple of months ago! But he was super happy that he had moved his family to a better place, bought 20 acres in the Bitterroot Valley (if you are a western Montanan you will instantly recognize the true meaning of this) and had enrolled his kids in the Christian school in Hamilton (if you… never mind, you get it). Then he mansplained Missoula’s weather to me. So what this guy told me without saying the words is, he’s a relatively wealthy conservative male contributing to the housing crisis and denigration of public schools. My favorite.
Then he asked how I felt about the show Yellowstone, and he actually had the nerve to say, “I hate it. All these people moving here because of that show are going to ruin Montana.”
Montana housing prices increased by 50% between the first half of 2020 and the first half of 2022.
Well. I know Montana is not the only place to experience an unsustainable housing crisis, but let me spell it out. Between 2019 and 2022, the state’s population increased by nearly 5 percent, creating a housing crunch. Many people who came here were fleeing more restrictive COVID situations like mask mandates, and they were often people who could work remotely and earned a higher salary than a typical Montanan, or had retired with one.
According to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, housing prices increased by 50% between the first half of 2020 and the first half of 2022, to an average of $446,000. That’s almost half a million dollars! Great for sellers who want to move to…I don’t know, Lubbock? Not great for buyers making a Montana-type wage. In 2021 houses were selling in a few hours, sight unseen, by buyers offering well over the asking price.
It was also not a great time for renters, as I learned when I moved out of my marriage home into a Missoula rental that year. High cost: my 2/1.5 was $1350/mo. Hard to find: The property company told me they weren’t even posting their openings because they had such a long waiting list of potential tenants, all they needed to do was call the next person and a place would be rented in 24 hours. Unstable: Rentals were also liable to be sold out from under tenants when landlords started to smell the green.
Plenty of Montanans don’t earn the salaries to engage with this type of living. Per capita income here, which includes unemployed persons and is generally considered to be a measurement for quality of life, is about $34K. National is close to $40K. Montana is also ranked in the bottom 10 states for median household income. So in general, we ain’t making the bux.
How this plays out is, it’s difficult to attract people to Montana because many jobs being advertised don’t pay enough to live here — not to buy, not to rent, nothing works. Only people with means (Door Guy) are managing that. The University of Montana can barely even offer a reasonable rate to lure new faculty and staff. I’m sure that’s partly why 140 employment openings languish on their careers site right now.
And what about run-of-the-mill professional jobs like teaching? Starting teachers earn around $32K in most Montana districts. Are you a single teacher at the beginning of your career? Get ready to have a roommate! And forget about anything resembling reasonable health insurance. At the time I left teaching, I had a doctorate and 22 years of experience and was maxed out on the salary schedule at $63K. At one time I paid nearly $800/month out of my pocket for a $6,000-deductible health care policy to cover my family. No dental. No vision. I had to pay every bill in full because of that deductible. Unsustainable.
And for people who don’t pull in a regular paycheck, like seasonal workers, freelancers, self-supporting folks like artists and writers, people who work in fast food or retail…It seems cruel.
Montanans want to create a society of people who are caring and compassionate, but we also don’t like to be fucked with.
Is this a newsletter where I whinge for 1000 words? Not exactly. We know what we’re getting into when we become teachers, or perhaps when we move to Montana. I’ve lived here since 1995 and the economy/housing has not ever been a ton better than this. But the political scene has, and that changes everything.
So many transplants in the past few years have been people who vote Republican, as evidenced by the broadening of the population in conservative population centers across the state, and this trend toward red encourages more to come. The 2022 elections were a red wash instead of the purple we used to see.
In the past Montanans haven’t been afraid to split tickets, they haven’t blindly supported politicians because of their R or D affiliation, and they haven’t complained about people indoctrinating their children in public schools in order to bring about publicly-funded charter schools unaccountable to anyone. They wanted what was generally best for all, and basically to leave each other alone. Exception to all this being maybe the Montana Freemen, and I mean, they were wackos.
These days, everything just feels much more partisan.
In further conversations with my door guy as he drilled and installed, I let him know I don’t mind Yellowstone and in fact have twice been an extra on the show. I made a point of informing him that Hamilton’s public schools are excellent. And I wrapped by telling him that Montanans want to create a society of people who are caring and compassionate, but we also don’t like to be fucked with.
I love nothing Door Guy stood for. He was the embodiment of people who move here sight unseen, drive up housing prices, demand charter schools, vote in one column only, and then complain about other newcomers.
But that day was an opportunity for me to embody what I do stand for, and what I’d like to see Montanans continue to be: People who care about other people and wildlife. People who keep one clear eye on what’s good, like public lands. People who think for themselves. People who compromise with each other.
If I need more handyman work, I’ll call that guy again, just to make my damn point.
Actual verbatim words that he uttered. The fucking irony.
A few people I know experienced this, both trying to buy a home in that market, and also a few who sold that way. And of course everyone was talking about “can you believe so-and-so sold their place in 7.5 hours flat for $28K over asking?”
I personally know several people whose landlord decided to sell the property with almost no notice. One day they’re just living life and the next day they’ve got a scant month to GTFO.
And also because he did a truly high quality job on my door. When it was -10° and blowing 25 mph for three days last month, I felt nothing through my door jamb.
It’s also ironic that the recurrent theme of “Yellowstone” is “preserving the MT way of life” whatever TF that means. And yes, I do love that show also and no, I’ve not been an extra even once.
Everyone is traumatized to some degree by migration- both the immigrant, who is uprooted, and the community they migrate to, who has to accommodate them. I don't think we want to say that people don't have a right to move around (contra Thomas More's Utopia, which had a strict permit system that governed when, where, and why people could travel!), and we also don't want to ignore the effect that migration has on communities.
Goodness, we've been bemoaning the disappearance of rural communities across Montana for so long, we weren't prepared for anyone to actually move into them!
I guess, the point I'd make is this: Among whatever we call "Montana values", my observation is the xenophobia is somewhere close to the core, and it's something we (I say "we" loosely, as someone who has only lived in Montana since the mid-2000s, which is long enough to blend in, but not long enough to belong; too late for A River Runs Through It and too early for Yellowstone) need to watch out for.
Mr. Handyman blundered in an interesting way, in that he assumed that these topics fell under the category of "small talk", and that apparently enough people had agreed with him in previous conversations that he felt comfortable leading with it as he spoke with strangers. How telling that he felt like xenophobia was a way to blend in with the locals! Also, it's interesting you put him in a certain class because he cashed out on the California market, and yet, in all of his privilege, he is installing a door. In your observation about the cost-of-living/wage disparity, I think it's worth mentioning that most handymen and tradesmen I talk to lately charge $80/hr. At a 40-hour workweek, that would gross $166K. Minus expenses and unbillable time and maybe they are pulling in $120K? For doing drywall or plumbing or door-installs? I'm not sure why this doesn't get more attention.
This is your story and your blog, and I don't want to co-opt it from the comments. However, I've heard this narrative so many times that it seems to have achieved a mythological status, with certain immutable doctrines. I'd really enjoy hearing it discussed with some more nuance and self awareness about what we are bringing to the table when we look at the "outsiders".
After all, even a 5th generation Montanan is still an "outsider" from the perspective of other people who live around here, and everyone one of us is a 1st generation inside our own skin.