The American dream is alive and well in Missoula, sort of. Not long after arriving here in the late 1990s, I found myself in the same conversation about real estate, hearing the same words and sharing the same sentiment. “You can’t eat the landscape,” someone would say, and everyone within earshot would laugh at the cliché, though it would usually be followed by an uncomfortable silence. Here’s what wasn’t funny then or now: In a recent study, local real estate agents tallied their statistics and calculated a whopping $206,850 median price for a house, but only a median income of $43,200.
At that income level, according to the study, a family could afford to buy a house for $143,000, and at the time the report was completed, there were all of nine such houses for sale. I know those houses. They fall into the category of former rentals where the landowner’s sole interest was collecting the rent while paying no mind to the leaky roof, cracked siding and dirt patch for a yard. Aside from being a 700-square-foot box, almost every one of the nine houses was between a highway and the train tracks.
I keep thinking about the changes I need to make in my life: first, to raise my income, and then to find an extra $15,000 so I can afford a home that’s not a beat-up fixer-upper a block from the highway.
At the time those grim housing statistics were released, I was scrambling for more gainful employment—for the opportunity to draw on my expensive knowledge, utilize my skills and realize my economic potential. Then, I could pay off my education, buy a house and live like an American. Over the years I’ve become well versed in the number of jobs available for nonprofessionals, which I define as anything but doctors, lawyers and professors that fall into the median income bracket. And how many jobs do you think there are here that pay enough to buy a $200,000 house? The answer is none.
Since my arrival out West, I have managed to do fairly well for myself, though that’s only my opinion. I have never been afforded the luxury of working only one job or a 40-hour week, and I’ve never had an employer who provided health insurance. But I have made what is considered a decent living “for Missoula.” That phrase is now spoken among my family members back home as if adding the local caveat makes everyone feel a little better about the fact that I am financially guttered. Currently, I work two semiprofessional positions at a 55- to 60-hour-a-week pace, and I fall just shy of the median income. I am not sure how much manure a girl has to shovel to push her into the next income bracket, but surely if there is a way, I have the will.
Unlike many of my fellow migrants who arrived in the West so many years ago, I did not admit defeat and retreat to the higher wages and cooler real estate markets of the Midwest from whence we came. Nope, and as one long-term relationship ended and my ex went sailing off to better economic climes, his parting words included the line: “I think you enjoy suffering.” For the record, I don’t. But I have learned to live on the most minimal budget, and I never—absolutely never—throw my nose up at any work.
It’s not that I like to suffer, it’s more like I have a dysfunctional relationship with the landscape of Montana. Like the high-school girl who can’t shake her love for the guy who keeps leading her on but who really has no interest in her whatsoever, I am absolutely obsessed and in love with the West, with Montana, with Missoula. I love the open space buffering my ever-growing mountain town. I love that I can walk out my front door and within an hour reach a wilderness area by foot. I love that I drive just a few miles in any direction and find myself bathed in natural glory.
So what if I have to scratch, kick and claw my way to the lower edges of the middle class? So what if Missoula is doing its best to shake the likes of me? I love it. I will always love it. Besides, I started shopping for real estate in Boulder, Colo., just to make myself feel better. At least it’s not that bad here, yet.
Kathryn Socie is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She works hard for a living in Missoula, Montana.