/Missoula residents forced to leave amid rising real-estate prices

Missoula residents forced to leave amid rising real-estate prices

  • The “Zoom boom” of 2020 is attracting new residents to Missoula, Montana, and driving locals out.
  • In 2020, the median home sale was $429,000, a 36.19% increase from 2019, and inventory is dwindling.
  • 6 Missoula locals shared the struggles they’re facing to afford to stay in the city.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Ask anyone who lives in Missoula, Montana, and they’ll tell you jobs that pay a living wage are hard to come by.

The small mountain town of 75,000 has always been a draw for people who appreciate a slower pace of life and easy access to the outdoors. But if Missoula was once a well-kept secret, it’s not anymore. Although the population has been steadily growing since the 1990s, the ”

Zoom
boom” of 2020 has put Missoula on the map for good. Like many other hip mountain towns across the west, Missoula became an attractive option for people from out of state who — due to the pandemic — could work from anywhere and retain their high home-state wages. They began snapping up homes in Missoula sight unseen and often for far higher than the listing price.

As former Missoula resident Tom Aldrich puts it, “You’ve got to pay to play to live in a cool town like that — that’s the cost of admission.”

In 2017, Missoula residents were already, on average, facing housing prices 4.53 times higher than the median household income. This displacement risk ratio has undoubtedly risen in the past four years. Fifty-three percent of Missoulians are renters, and 48% are cost burdened, meaning they pay more than 30% of their income on housing. On average, a two-person household in Missoula makes just $54,062 a year.

According to the Missoula Organization of Realtors’ 2020 Housing Report, median home prices have risen by 57% since 2010, while wages have only risen by 20% in the same period. 

In 2010, the median home price in Missoula was $200,500. Until 2019, this price gradually increased by 8.6%. In 2020, however, the median home sale was $429,000 — a 36.19% increase from 2019 — and sales prices are still climbing. 

While homes are going for at least $50,000 over asking price, inventory is shrinking. In January of 2020, there were 250 homes available for sale in Missoula. A year later, there were 54. 

For renters, it’s gotten even worse: The rental vacancy rate in Missoula is between 0.5% and 1%. 1,707 households remain on the Section 8 voucher waiting list. 

With such an attractive market for sellers, property owners are either raising rents or selling rentals out from under occupants. To enjoy floating the Clark Fork River in the summer or hiking the meandering wooded paths in Pattee Canyon, it appears that you now have to have an out-of-state income. 

For several people, this has meant leaving the place they love so they can afford to live. Here are their stories.

Debbie Shepard, 63, is being forced to leave after her landlord raised her rent by $700

Debbie Shepard

Debbie Shepard.

Debbie Shepard


I’ve lived in Missoula my whole life, but I got divorced and ended up with no home, so I’ve been renting since 2002. 

I was a hair stylist and owned my own business, two of them. But I had a car accident in 2008. So I had to sell both the businesses, and now between my autoimmune disease and my back and neck, I’m 100% disabled. 

I’ve lived in a basement apartment in the same building for 12 years. The building sold to somebody new in 2019. She’s raising my rent by $700, which will make it $1,500 a month. 

I’m on a housing voucher and disability, and so is my grandson, Brandon. I’ve cared for him for 10 years. I can see there’s no way we can stay.

I’ve been looking and I don’t find anything I can rent. The rent has gotten so high here that it’s out of people’s ballpark who were born and raised here. And Housing and Urban Development (HUD) doesn’t have the authority to give you that big of a voucher. You can transfer your vouchers to another city, but if you can’t find something within 60 days, you lose your voucher. 

I’ve had my voucher for about eight years, and it took me six years to even get it after I became disabled. I lived in my car for part of that time.

It’s really frustrating because the new owner is a local. I’m shocked that she would do that. She knew everybody living in the building was on a tight budget. She knew I was on disability. I actually did her grandmother’s hair for 30 years, picked her up, took her home every Friday for 30 years while I did hair, and she still wants more money than I can afford.

I lost my younger brother to COVID-19 in December last year. He lived across the street from me. And I can’t really leave Missoula yet, because my mom’s almost 85 and she’s by herself. That’s really the only reason I’m still here. When she’s gone, I’ve got to go somewhere where I can afford to live.

I’d like to know where the affordable housing is for those of us who are disabled. Between my grandson’s disability and my disability, we still only get $1,500 a month. How are we supposed to live? It’s just getting impossible.

Tara Tatsey, 35, from the Blackfeet tribe, lived in Missoula since 2016 and moved in 2020

Tara Tatsey

Tara Tatsey and her family.

Tara Tatsey


I’m a single parent and have four kids.

I moved to Missoula in 2016 to attend the University of Montana. I had a hard time finding housing, so I had to settle with student housing, which was outrageous. I had to take out student loans and it would just go directly to my rent. 

At one point, I was paying $908 a month, and I just couldn’t do it. I would get eviction letters all the time. I ended up moving into a little two-bedroom. I think I paid $650. But we didn’t even have a kitchen. We couldn’t put a dining table in there. 

I was going to school, and I was a student employee, so I only made $9.25 an hour. So I applied and eventually got into public housing. 

It made it a little bit easier while I was in school because I didn’t have to pay anything. But once I got a job, I had to pay. 

Even with a degree in medical information technology, I was only making $12.45 an hour at the hospital working in the gastroenterology department. I made $800 every two weeks, and I got no assistance and had to pay rent and $35,000 in student loans. 

I had to move home. I just couldn’t survive there. We left in January 2020.

My kids love Missoula. There’s so much to do. We’re from the reservation. We don’t have a swimming pool with a bowling alley, we don’t have a movie theater — we have nothing. I thought my kids would get a chance at life, but being a single parent, I just couldn’t do it.

I started work on the reservation (located east of Glacier National Park) in June, and I’ve been working since. I make $7.60 more an hour than I made in Missoula. 

My kids want to go back. I just don’t know. If things could change, and I could make as much as I do here, I could probably survive there. But I was looking at apartments and houses are $2,200 to $3,000 a month. I would just be working to live there. 

Levi Bessette, 38, has lived in Missoula his whole life and may have to move after he graduates

Levi Bessette 2

Levi Bessette and his daughter.

Levi Bessette


I was born in Missoula in 1982. My mom and dad were raised here, and my grandparents lived here. 

I’m a proud North-sider. Growing up, I lived at 500 Howell, my uncle lived kitty-corner on Phillips, my dad’s parents lived on First Street, and my mom’s parents lived on Howell Street — so I was close to everybody. 

Later, I ended up having a daughter that I’ve raised by myself. Her mom has been absent since she was eight months old, and she’s 13 now. 

I’ve learned that there aren’t resources for single fathers. But I went to Tamarack — they have subsidized living apartments all around town. 

I’m in a 600-square-foot apartment now. It was $790 a month when I got it, which is a lot for 600 square feet. I try to be grateful to have a home. But every year they jack the rent up $50. I’m at $890 a month now. 

I’m in recovery for addiction. I was a welder, and I was very talented at what I did, but I kept getting hurt. I had to find something to do where I wasn’t going to kill myself. 

I went back to school for addiction counseling. I’ve been doing this for 15 years, so it was like, I should do this and get paid for it. 

I’m living on student loans. And I’m just like an hourglass watching the sand go because when I graduate, there’s no more student loans. And it’s only going to be more expensive. So I just live in denial. I can’t think about it or I’ll quit everything.

I love Missoula life and what this community means to me. My daughter can walk to the bus stop without me worrying, and she can go play in the park, and all these beautiful things that make Missoula Missoula. But I just know I’ll have to move. I know how to do math.

This is impossible. In the social-work field, you don’t make money. I’ll be doing what I believe is important, which isn’t about the pay, obviously. But it’s nice to be paid enough to live.

Every now and then I’ll get on Zillow and cry myself to sleep. I want to live near Missoula, so maybe Potomac, St. Regis, something like that. But even those are the same prices now. They’re all $1,200 a month for a one-bedroom. It’s criminal. 

Emily Likins-Ehlers, 31, was living paycheck-to-paycheck before she left Missoula in 2018

Emily Likins-Ehlers1

Emily Likins-Ehlers and her family.

Emily Likins-Ehlers


Adam and I met in Missoula and started our family shortly after. I was working at Biga Pizza (best job in Missoula, I’m convinced) and Adam had three jobs, one of which was at Opportunity Resources (Montana’s largest disability nonprofit). 

We didn’t make much money and I was sick from my pregnancy, so we left for my hometown, Chicago. Adam began working as a union laborer in downtown Chicago. 

We ended up back in Missoula after a short stint in Oregon, where it was very hard to find work. I worked as the organizer for the Missoula Area Central Labor Council, and I only made $15 an hour. Adam had to work part time, and he made around the same amount. 

We felt really lucky. We were “Missoula rich,” we used to joke, but we lived in a slew of extremely expensive and low-quality places that left us without any money for childcare. We were stuck in every way in Missoula because we couldn’t work more without childcare and we were exhausted. The cost of living for such s—-y places didn’t improve my mental health. 

We left Missoula for Illinois at the end of 2018. Adam immediately got a really great job making way more money, our housing situation improved, our cost of living decreased, and we’ve been able to save over $20,000 since then. 

Emily and Adam Likins Ehlers

Emily and Adam’s first house.

Emily and Adam Likins Ehlers


We bought our first house last week and still have a nest-egg, savings, a cushion. In Missoula, we literally counted coins from our change jars to make it work. It was so paycheck-to-paycheck and I didn’t even realize just how stressful that really was until it wasn’t our reality anymore.

Tom Aldrich, 34, has lived in Missoula since 2005 and left in February

Tom Aldrich 2 (photo credit Chelsea Culp)

Tom Aldrich.

Chelsea Culp


I was born and raised in Billings, Montana. 

I first came to Missoula in 2005 to attend the University of Montana. I left after I graduated in 2009, but in 2013 all the things that I fell in love with in Missoula, including the cool, funky, weird town, the river parks, the progressive society, the politeness you don’t experience everywhere — that kind of Missoula essence drew me back to pursue a master’s of public administration. 

During that time, I worked at the Missoula Downtown Association. I was also working on the side as a photographer. After grad school, I ran the fair at the Missoula Fairgrounds for four years. 

My biggest accomplishment in serving the community was making it free. I lived in a 2.5-bedroom duplex near the Dairy Queen on Higgins. It was a dumpy old party house, but the owners liked having me there because I improved the property. So that was our unspoken agreement — I kept it nice, and they kept the rent low for almost six years. 

In late 2019, I decided to pursue photography full time. When COVID-19 hit, it was scary to be in my first year in business, but in spite of 2020 it was financially successful. 

But during that time we started seeing lots of people moving to Missoula from other states with this illusion of greater COVID-19 safety. My new neighbors didn’t make it conducive to being a productive workspace because it became a college hangout. 

So I moved into another apartment last summer that turned out to be infested with mice. The landlord apparently knew the mice were there, but didn’t tell me. It really brought renting anxiety to a head. It was such a high cost to just move to a new apartment. I knew I couldn’t do it again.

Prices skyrocketed in 2020. The cheap duplex I left increased by 45%. That would be illegal in other cities that cap increases between 5% and 10%.

I moved back to Billings in February. My friends in Billings have owned houses since their 20s. I know people in their 40s living in basements in Missoula.

The material sacrifice so many people make to live in Missoula wasn’t really worth it to me anymore. I didn’t want to pay $400,000 for a fixer-upper. I can get a fixer-upper in Billings for $150,000. I didn’t feel like Missoula had a lot to offer someone like me who’s a moderately successful young professional, who has some money in the bank and wants to buy a house. It just wasn’t accessible to me.

Tara Werner, 41, moved to Missoula in her 20s and her housing costs have gone up $500 a month

Tara Werner

Tara Werner and her family.

Tara Werner


I’m a stay-at-home mom and substitute teacher.

I’m originally from Eastern Idaho. I was in my late 20s when I decided to come to Missoula to finish my bachelor’s degree.

My husband was already working for the railroad when we got married. He had been in Missoula longer than me, since 2001.

About three years after we got married, we decided we were going to build a house because at the time we were just coming out of the

recession
, so housing was pretty affordable. We were able to get a good deal on land and things were great.

We are in our early 40s now and have four kids ranging in age from two to eight. And now our property values are increasing.

Our monthly payments have gone up almost $500 a month in eight years, just in property taxes alone. My husband got a new job with a railroad, but we’re looking at moving possibly within commute distance, but out of Missoula County, because property taxes are so high and ever-increasing.

I grew up in a small town where we had to drive a half hour to get to Walmart, but I live three miles from Walmart now. That’s super convenient. I will miss being close to things. And especially when things “get back to normal” and there are more events and things for my kids.

It’s sad that people who grow up in Missoula, or areas like Missoula, and want to raise their families in small, mountainous towns where the lifestyle is a little bit slower are increasingly forced to leave because they can’t afford to stay. While I’m not native to Missoula, my kids are. I want them to live a lifestyle like we have here in western Montana.

We’re lucky we have a good job, but at the rate that things continue to increase, that’s not necessarily going to stay that way. We know that we just can’t keep up with the housing costs.

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