HAMILTON — While Missoula and other Montana cities might get the most headlines for homelessness, there's growing evidence the housing crisis is expanding quickly into rural areas, like the Bitterroot.
In fact, leaders working on the problem now say a quarter of the people renting homes, and over 13% of homeowners in Ravalli County are "severely burdened" with housing costs.
Those numbers are just part of the story as affordable housing advocates sponsored a discussion on Ravalli County's growing problems for people trying to find shelter.
Speakers said new surveys are showing not only more people on the edge of losing their homes because of economic pressures, but a crisis trying to arrange for emergency shelter.
The few apartments or homes available are beyond many budgets, and the boom in pandemic travel makes the few hotel rooms in the Bitterroot full, and expensive. It’s proof affordable housing isn't just an urban problem.
"We haven't kept up with the demand for building. And we're lacking millions of homes in terms of meeting the demands,” Human Resource Council director Jim Morton said. “So, what is out there is very expensive because of the market pressures and the wages have not kept up."
The casual observer might wonder how there could be a housing shortage with the building boom in the Bitterroot but prices are soaring above what most long-time residents make.
"So, we know this is a really popular place to move. And there are many folks may be moving from places with higher incomes and it's hard for people who've lived here for a long time to compete,” one speaker at the forum noted.
The tourism boom saw some rooms renting for $300 a night this past summer, far beyond what agencies can afford to provide emergency shelter. So, the panel said most of the "hidden homeless" in the Bitterroot are families being forced to "camp out" if they can find a spot, or crowding in with others.
The problem is also keeping domestic violence victims from finding safety because they're afraid of living on the street.
"In rural Montana, folks who are homeless are not always visible and often living with friends and relatives,” Morton explained. “And they're doubled up because they can't afford their own housing."
That's creating a vicious economic cycle in the valley.
"Employers are constantly trying to attract new employees and when they do the math on the housing costs and what is being offered as a salary, they're not able to move. They're not able to take and fulfill jobs that we desperately need,” Morton said.
Speakers at the event said it's a complicated problem that needs a community solution.
"We're trying to get the public involved, no matter what your background is. Because until we as a community come together and start to put demand on elected officials to solve some of this,” Morton concluded.