Opinion | What Happened to My Beloved College Town?

BOZEMAN, Mont. — “Isn’t it beautiful?” asked the stranger veering toward me on the bridge.

By Montana standards, Bozeman Creek is actually a humdrum little drip. I had paused crossing the bridge because a crow had just dumped a gnawed mouse carcass into the water. But hearing the dreamy catch in the woman’s voice, I looked up from the furry portent of death floating downstream and answered, “Sort of?”

It was a wintry day last year. I was as bundled up as a Scandinavian proverb: There is no bad weather, only bad clothes. The stranger wasn’t wearing a jacket and shivered so much it was like chatting with a washer that just hit the spin cycle. When I asked her if she might be a tad underdressed, she said that she just moved out here from Georgia. She had signed her divorce papers, loaded up her car and drove west to Bozeman for a fresh start. It all happened so fast she hadn’t gotten around to buying a coat.

So she wasn’t just a person, she was a statistic, the face of the new Montanans surfacing in the 2020 census, enabling the state to reclaim the second congressional seat we lost some 30 years ago.

Lately, this college town in the Gallatin Valley close to Yellowstone National Park with Montana’s busiest airport, has been one of the country’s fastest-growing “micropolitan statistical areas” — what the federal Office of Management and Budget calls places with an urban core and a population of 10,000 to 50,000.

The Spanish Peaks shimmer, the public schools are good, and it’s so safe the police reports are read as entertainment — oh, no, somebody’s fern got stolen. If you can put up with February, fire season and a governor cited for uncertified wolf-trapping, it’s a nice enough city. But is it enough of a city for the O.M.B.?

Forthcoming census results are expected to confirm that Bozeman’s population has surged past 50,000, bumping it up from “micropolitan” to the O.M.B.’s “metropolitan” category. The rest of the state pokes fun of Bozeman’s stuck-up urbanity as “a nice city that’s very close to Montana.” That’s fair. I refer to everywhere east of Big Timber as “West Dakota.” Metropolitan status confers perks the Sons of the Pioneers never sang about, like funding from Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program, which finances water and sewer updates as well as low-income housing.

But then the O.M.B., like a crow dropping a mouse corpse from the sky, announced a proposed change to the “metropolitan” threshold to populations of at least 100,000. This could stymie Bozeman and other up and comers, demote cities like Muncie, Ind., and Santa Fe, N.M., as well as Montana’s metropolitans Great Falls and Missoula, and pit rural areas against downgraded urban neighbors. Senator Jon Tester called this potential revision “the death knell of Montana,” and just introduced a bill to prohibit the O.M.B. from raising the metropolitan yardstick past 50,000 people.

Granted, urbanization out here has a regional twist. The state fish and wildlife department just posted a sign in my neighborhood warning, “Bear in Area.” But if the bear could talk, it would wonder who it has to maul around here to get more traffic lights on South Willson Avenue.

In 2020, accompanying the fateful announcement that Bozeman will be getting Montana’s first Whole Foods, an avalanche of affluent plague migrants engulfed this town. What was a housing crisis erupted into a housing calamity. In the last year, according to the Gallatin Association of Realtors, the median single family home price in the county shot up more than 45 percent, to $704,750 from $485,000.

The competition is so cutthroat that Sean Hawksford, who operates a local construction business, stood on Main Street in February wearing a handmade cardboard sign that said, “Please sell me a home.” (The stunt worked, and he and his pregnant wife, Jessica, just closed on a four-bedroom.)

With Bozeman being the home of Montana State University, the pricey housing here endangers the ability of people statewide to attend college. M.S.U.’s campus has enough beds for only about one-third of its 15,000 students, some of whom have children. The remaining 10,000, who pour in from sheep ranches, reservations and the Great Plains, are fed to the landlords.

A no-frills little house on North Plum that I rented, with a guy in a band called the Pigs, for $220 a month in 1988 when I attended M.S.U. would now cost, according to Zillow, at least $2,000.

The research group Headwaters Economics compiled a chart of Gallatin County data titled “All Sectors of the Economy Are Growing Except Farm.” The precarious future of the valley’s farmers, some descended from Dutch immigrants, is symbolized by a subdivision where streets of Neo-Craftsman homes are named for tractor companies like Farmall. No need for John Deere tractors on John Deere Street.

“Montana’s growth, in one sense,” wrote the historian K. Ross Toole, “has been a series of traumas.” Unlike the “Big Die-Up” in the 1880s, when a ferocious winter decimated the cattle industry, Bozeman’s upheaval comes with four Thai restaurants. Compared with Libby, whose vermiculite mine poisoned its people, or Colstrip, confronting coal’s bleak future, Bozeman is facing a problem — popularity — that seems downright banal.

And yet romanticizing the Bozeman of yore has teeth. In his book “Equality,” R.W. Tawney figured that “individual happiness does not only require that men should be free to rise to new positions of comfort and distinction; it also requires that they should be able to lead a life of dignity and culture, whether they rise or not.”

Bozeman used to live up to that ideal. Housing was cheap and the university fostered a collective life of the mind. It resembled a quaint mountain village in a Hallmark movie, except instead of a Christmas tree lighting, the chummy townspeople would gather to watch a scratchy print of “Koyaanisqatsi.”

Paul Mason could play a show with his punk band Cratewasher, go straight from the bar to his job as a crate washer on the graveyard shift at the dairy and head home to a swell Victorian where his share of the rent was $150. His life of dignity and culture threatened no one other than the lactose intolerant.

Patrick Jobes, a former M.S.U. sociology professor who interviewed the valley’s newcomers for his book “Moving Nearer to Heaven,” pins some of the creeping income inequality on how “by the mid-’80s most of the university towns had burgeoning computer-related industries.”

Bozeman’s vanguard was the software company RightNow Technologies, founded in 1997 by Montana’s current governor, Greg Gianforte. He and his executives, including Senator Steve Daines, recruited out-of-state workers by extolling the Rocky Mountain outdoor lifestyle. Both Republicans, they ran for office as “job creators,” and rightly so; that sounds a lot better than “horsemen of the housing apocalypse.”

After the tech foothold, Pat Jobes recalls, “Many people who conveyed much of the spirit by passionately talking, singing, skiing, drinking and reading, who were surviving as waitresses and bike mechanics, were squeezed out.”

Bozeman is going to need more waitresses and bike mechanics, not fewer. Where are they supposed to live? Farther and farther outside the city limits, in condos built on the ruins of some dead Dutchman’s farm, out past the headwaters of the Missouri, where Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin’s name was bestowed upon this valley’s river by Lewis and Clark — if anyone’s to blame for this mess, it’s those two.

Meanwhile, there’s a bear on the loose. It’s called the Office of Management and Budget. Bend, Ore., which could lose its “metropolitan” status, has a housing shortage. Ditto Dubuque, Iowa. In the real world, that’s how a city should be defined: If there’s a housing problem, it’s a city. But we’re not talking about reality. We’re discussing the federal government.

The implications of raising the “metropolitan” benchmark are unknown but likely immense. That’s not management. That’s chaos. If the O.M.B. persists, Congress should pass Senator Tester’s bill to stop it.

Great Falls, still “metropolitan” for now, plans to use a HUD block grant to modernize the elevator in a public housing complex for the elderly and disabled. Such a small thing, and yet the right to a decent place to live is a big idea. What’s more profound than home?

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