Trying to buy in a Montana boomtown

On being middle-class in a housing market tilted to the wealthiest buyers

The first thing you need to know about Sean Hawksford is that he’s not looking for sympathy. This is not a sob story. He wants to make that very clear.

He runs a booming small business, packing drywall for a lumber company. He and his wife are expecting a baby boy in June. They are better off financially than many working people in Bozeman, Montana. 

He just wants to buy a house in the community where he’s spent his entire adult life, surrounded by his family and friends who also have young families. After 16 rejected offers on 16 different homes and condos in the last few months, Hawksford, in a bit of inspired frustration, took his plea to the streets of downtown Bozeman last week. With careful, neat handwriting, he wrote out his family’s situation – they have the income, a good down payment and approved financing - on cardboard placards, with the pitch: “Sell to a local. Please sell me a home.”

“I thought, ‘You know what, there’s nothing else I can do, why not try it?’” he explained.

A friend in Bozeman sent me photos of Hawksford standing downtown, wearing his placards, hoping for any lead on a house. I posted the photos on Twitter to show how weird and untenable Bozeman’s housing market has become, and they went a little viral (Sorry, Sean. Please stop sending him mean emails).

His plea touched a nerve, I think, because so many people in so many cities in America can relate. Housing prices in many popular cities are untenable; demand is up, the supply of houses for sale is way down. This is not just a Bozeman problem or a Montana problem - though it’s more pronounced in some small cities here - but a national one. 

So I called him up to get the whole story. 

Hawksford moved to Bozeman from a small town in Minnesota when he was 18, to study at Montana State University. He fell in love, got married three years ago, and when the couple learned they were expecting their first child last fall, they got serious about buying a home of their own. They’ve been living in a 430-square-foot apartment in an old building near downtown to save up for a down payment.

The problem is Bozeman, where the local housing market, already tight and expensive for decades and worsening steadily, has gone off the rails under pressure from new buyers and a flood of cash offers made sight-unseen amid the pandemic. While low-income families certainly have it worse, it’s created an untenable situation for nearly everyone, including Hawksford, who can afford a house of up to $600,000.

That sounds easy, but Bozeman’s market is anything but. This according to a story from December in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle:

The cost of buying a home in the Gallatin Valley continued to climb in November, with a 46.4% increase in median sales price of a single-family home between November 2019 and November 2020.

That’s an increase of $195,000 in 12 months, from a $420,000 median to a $615,000 median, according to the Big Sky Country Multiple Listing Service’s November 2020 market report, released last week.

Hawksford said it’s a strange space in which to wait.

“It kind of makes a good sob story to say we’re stuck in this tiny little old apartment,” he told me. “We have the means to rent a nicer place, but we’re choosing not to because our strategy was to save money for a down payment and buy a starter home.”

If you’re not familiar with what’s been happening in Bozeman, a give-or-take 55,000-population mountain town in southern Montana, there is a wealth of good reporting on the housing crisis. In short, the city was already cracking at the seams from wealth, buyers flush with cash snatching up a coveted piece of Big Sky Country, for years. In the last year, as the number of people working from home rose and more urbanites began to flee cities in the pandemic, those cracks began to burst. 

In a piece for Bloomberg CityLab earlier this month, writer Patrick Sisson described what’s happened with housing this year and the crisis for working people in Bozeman. Read the whole thing to understand the deeper story: 

“For Bozeman residents, however, the frenzy has made their plight more acute. The cost of living is more than 20% higher than the national average, while the median income is about 20% lower, limiting buying power in a market crowded with flush out-of-towners. More housing is coming: According to the city, a handful of new neighborhoods have recently broken ground and apartments are going up downtown. But locals are still getting squeezed out.”

The weight, which has wrung out many lower-income working folks and pushed them from Bozeman entirely, is now falling on solidly middle-class families like the Hawksfords. The spillover can be seen for miles, in tiny little boomtowns and new construction on the outskirts of Bozeman, even 85 miles west across the Continental Divide in Butte, where I live. In the last year, Butte’s home prices have also soared and properties disappear from the market in days after being listed; several of the city’s historic uptown buildings have been snatched up by out-of-town buyers with unknown plans for their future. 

Everything is a little weird in all of Montana’s larger towns and cities right now, and it’s clear we’re on the precipice of yet another spike wealth inequality.

For Hawksford, that’s the thing that might ultimately drive his family from Bozeman. Though he’s frustrated that more than half of the homes the couple has bid on have gone to buyers offering 100 percent cash, his deeper concern is how the unequal boom is fracturing a sense of community in Bozeman. Already, he says, he sees class resentment and suspicion increasing. 

Here’s more of what he had to say, in his own words:

“To be completely honest, my goal was to go out and get us some leads to buy us a house. In seeing how many people have identified with my situation and been interested in it, I hope it shines some light on the struggle many young people are facing and brings some movement toward positive change.

What I want to make really clear is that I am really privileged. I have been here for 10 years, I own a successful small business, from every angle you look at it, I’m. incredibly privileged and blessed.

If this story continues to spread and I have anything to say about it, I just want to say it’s really untenable. We’re in a tremendous financial position, and we’re having a hard time. There’s tons of other people who just have no shot at all, all they can hope for is that they’ll be the one picked of 22 offers on a cheap condo. These people are my friends and even my family. They need homes, too.

How long are they going to be satisfied living there?”

And that, I think, is the central question. What kind of communities are we building in places like Bozeman, if any at all?

I’ll be writing more about this issue, but there’s lots of great reporting already out in the world, especially in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, which has covered the housing crunch for years.  Check on more recent pieces:

*High Country News on how the housing crisis is hitting Bozeman’s sole multicultural enclave

*Montana Free Press on the state Legislature’s refusal to act on easing zoning requirements in a way that could bring home prices down.

*A wider view from NBC Montana on soaring home prices in Montana, not just Bozeman.

*The Daily Montanan on how ZoomTown home prices maybe here to stay for years.

Loading more posts…