Californian Climate Refugees are Taking Over My Hometown
Californians: Let me start off my saying, I get it. I don’t blame you for migrating in droves to my hometown of Missoula, MT.
Your state burned all summer. The sea level of your coastline is rising at an alarming rate. Death Valley clocked the highest recorded temperature on earth, in the last century, at 130 degrees last month. Your air quality meant that you smoked any number of cigarettes a day in forest fire smoke over the summer. Apart from that, we’re in the midst of an out-of-control pandemic and teetering on the brink of fascism, and the country is set to blow in a month. It’s bad. I get it.
I can imagine Missoula looks like a welcoming oasis: high in the mountains, free from rising waters, and insulated a bit from the coastal inferno. Our quality of life seems higher, and our housing is more affordable.
Let me qualify that: It’s more affordable for you. It’s become completely unaffordable for us.
In the before-times, we relied heavily on tourism dollars that cycled through our economy for about four months out of the year, and that was great — as long as everyone left at the end of tourism season.
But this year, you’re staying.
A family friend of ours, a top realtor in the area, is overwhelmed with business from about-to-be migrant Californians. Multiple families are offering full, in-cash payments of $20K over asking price and still winding up on a list, the demand is so high. You’re buying houses site-unseen and toured virtually via Zoom. In many cases, you’re selling your beachfront condos in Cali for half a million and trading up for a full house with acreage to keep horses, if you so fancy.
Where my husband and I were almost able to afford a home about a year ago (we were just taking a minute to get our credit scores up and save for a down payment), there’s no way we are now. The only way we’re even able to stay inside the city limits is the kindness of friends and family members who have rented us their homes for well below market value. The median home price has risen $315K to $340K in the first part of 2020 alone — during the key pandemic months. I’m guessing the chaos of the world coupled with climate urgency and the sudden, country-wide revelation that we can all work remotely came together in a perfect storm to prompt your mass exodus.
I don’t pretend to have some sovereign right to this land: How I feel only scratches the surface of how the Salish people, whose tribal land this city was built on, feel. I understand that communities evolve and, even to our heartbreak, become unrecognizable.
Missoula’s gentrification has been happening since I was a high schooler in the 90’s (well, it’s always been happening, but that’s when we really started to notice it). Missoula’s not weird anymore. It’s bland and overpriced like the Americanized fusion food spots that have taken over the downtown area.
Here’s the thing: It would be easier for me to move on and find someplace new if 3/4th of my kid’s grandparents, plus their spouses, didn’t live here. Dammit, man. All my best friends from high school finally just moved back and I’ve been able to build a community I’ve never had before, and that, with the cost of living inflation, is necessary to raise a kid here.
The sting of housing inflation wouldn’t be quite as bad if y’all were doing something to create jobs or stimulate the local economy. But you’re not. All those Cali dollars are getting funneled directly into property values, so sky-high we locals can barely see them anymore.
I don’t expect you to stop, and like I said, I can’t blame you for wanting to move here. But can you try to be part of the solution to climate change rather than just escaping it? Could you, instead of buying up giant suburban McMansions that look like Ikea pooped in the foothills, consider buying land and building houses using repurposed materials, or powered by sustainable energy? Might you, instead of bringing your gas-guzzling Hummers and SUVs, consider driving a hybrid car, or riding your bike here? (I promise you, this town is lousy with bike paths and bikers have more traffic rights than cars and pedestrians put together). Can you please, please be mindful of where the more vulnerable, minority, and Native populations live, and not crowd their kids out of the public schools they attend? If you’re well-off enough that only one parent needs to work, can the stay-at-home parent spend some time advocating for planetary justice?
Here’s the problem with climate-based migration: It removes the issue from your radar so you don’t have to think about it anymore. Moving away from climate change-driven change mean it stops being your problem, and it starts being ours.
I’m not asking you to leave. I’m just asking you to be mindful that climate change is closing in on all of us. We’re all feeling the pinch. Please do what you can.