What's Your Beef?: What Will We Think of Next?

Steve Kirchhoff  |   Monday Apr. 1st, 2024

We might have come to a social and cultural limit on our mode of thinking and problem-solving. Or, better put, maybe our guiding principles have abandoned us or have lost their utility when applied to our most pressing problems.

Currently, our city faces the crisis of growth, what some might call the problem of too much success. Even before but especially during the pandemic, many western towns and cities besides Bozeman began seeing record-breaking population growth, revved up by people, mostly of means, fleeing the headache of reality they experienced in other places. At the same time, our nation saw income inequality, already a significant barrier to working-class and poor people, grow to extremes not seen since the last Gilded Age.

Wealth, more concentrated in fewer hands than ever in our lifetimes, is actively distorting prices in many sectors of American social life—including, among others, health care, higher education, and housing. In a more humane and rational world, these public goods would not be subject to the market pressure to yield profits for private investors. Everyone benefits when taxpayers provide for good public health care and education and housing and drinking water and roads and libraries—and a thriving ecosystem.

In a more humane and rational world, these public goods would be protected from market forces by policies and spending of government. Economic inequality has always been a fact of life in Bozeman, where housing prices traditionally have been among the highest in the state. But we never have grown as fast as we are growing today; in former times, human activities in general were less leveraged than they are today. Finally, the relatively slow pace of population growth in previous times kept demand in check.

Now, we are caught in the icy grip of high demand driven by newcomers who own more wealth than local residents, many of whom are barred entrance to the market. Even if local demand for housing declines, price might not be drawn down enough to do much good, since price has reached such a height that little other than market collapse can lower it to levels working-class people can afford.

The wealth of newcomer-buyers in the housing market simply overwhelms that of locals. And it is this wealth, together with other factors such as the hoarding, holding, flipping, and converting to rental market of purchased homes that encourages housing prices to rise beyond locals’ reach.

For years, the city commission has wrestled mightily with the housing problem. They have adopted the view that their best bet is to drive down price by boosting supply. To that end, they recently proposed a raft of changes to residential zoning that would increase density, losing some old allies while adding many new enemies among the public. The proposed zoning changes came after the city had already shrunk the review process for major development projects, reducing almost to nil the opportunity for public participation.

These changes, plus an incentive program to increase production of affordable housing, are designed to increase supply and push price down. However, I have tried to point out above that supply and demand, though they are powerful explanatory words, might not say enough about price. There are other factors—such as the greater wealth of the buying class, the investment-oriented purposes for purchase of this class, and the sky-high existing price point—that might exert a force like inertia on price, holding it in place, or at least slowing its movement downward. (As of this writing, the median new home price in Bozeman is just under one million.)

No one seems to know the answer to a basic question: How many units per year will be required to be built and put on the market before Bozeman’s housing price will be low enough for local working people? What is the magic number? What are we shooting for? Among many people I have spoken with on these issues, faith in supply and demand is rampant, and yet they are far less inclined to “get into the weeds” and divulge the number of new residential units needed before supply tames demand—and to say what all this buildout will produce, measured in physical changes to the health of the landscape.

We have to admit, don’t we, that increasing housing supply and size of the built environment generally, imperils other important values of this community, including sustainability, and also historic preservation and community character? The recent election delivered to us a new mayor, Joey Morrison, who, as a co-founder of a tenants’ union, advocated strongly for local working people and their access to housing. During the campaign, he characterized the local growth industry as serving outsiders and wondered out loud many times: “Who is Bozeman growing for?”

Finishing just behind Joey in the race was John Meyer, who advocated for conservation and disdained the growth industry for its degradation of land, air, and water quality. Meyer equated environmental degradation with growth and on that basis opposed growth, even suggesting the city adopt a six-month moratorium. He garnered many votes from longtime Bozeman residents who, fearful of the city’s plans to densify their neighborhoods, adopted him into their hearts—first, for his anti-growth stance, and second, for his conservation ethic.

The prominence of the two candidates puts into clear view Bozeman’s current development dilemma. Stated in questions, they might go like this: Do we grow in order to house our local working class, even if this means bulk-ifying historic downtown neighborhoods with Holloran’s uniform big-box housing developments? Even if this means turning current grain fields into future gravel pits? Even if it means converting today’s thriving riparian areas into tomorrow’s asphalt batch plants, and even if it means becoming something cancerous, more like Salt Lake City than Billings?

Another question: Do we do all this because we have unquestioning faith in three words—”supply and demand?” Are we not approaching the limits of the efficacy of this mode of thinking?

A final question, this one for Joey: In the headlong push to reduce price, how do we ensure that “local” working people are the ones who ultimately get to purchase the lower cost housing? I assent totally to Joey’s preference for growth to serve people who are already here, whose blood is the city’s life, whose efforts are its shaping influence. That makes sense. But precisely how will he guarantee “locals” their dibs on housing, and not newcomers?

If our mode of thinking through our problems not only exhausts our minds and bodies but also the landscape on which all of this depends, should we not take a “time out” to examine our mode of thinking? 

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