Bozeman, Mont., Is one of those quaint little towns that saw an onslaught of distressed metropolitan residents during the pandemic. While research suggests that major urban exodus has not occurred on a nationwide scale, small changes in a community with fewer than 50,000 residents can make a difference. Especially when it comes to property prices.
“We are finding that more liberal remote working policies are making people choose to move and live in this very desirable place,” said Cyndy Andrus, Bozeman Mayor. “We are seeing significant immigration of people fleeing the major cities on the coast and moving into our community,” Andrus said on a recent conference call for the National League of Cities (NLC). “Unfortunately, this has significantly increased the cost of housing in Bozeman and created a shortage.”
The average retail price for a single family home in Bozeman is now over $ 700,000, up 30 percent in less than a year. Many communities across the country have seen similar price increases in this highly sensitive sector as the country’s housing market experiences an unprecedented boom despite major economic turmoil.
It might sound strange to say that an isolated town 90 miles north of Yellowstone National Park is representative of larger trends in American communities, but new research from NLC shows that Andrus’ experiences are widespread. Rising property values - and falling affordability – made housing the fourth highest priority among mayors surveyed by the organization. Infrastructure is Andrus’ # 1 priority, as is the majority of other respondents across America.
“It’s a constant tension,” says Richard Schragger, a professor at the University of Virginia and Author of the book City power. “Mayors and city administrators like to see higher property values because they generate higher income. But increased property values indicate increased property prices, which undermines affordability. “
These results were published in the 2021 State of the cities reportwho have favourited the NLC annually. Typically, researchers scour annual city state speeches to see what mayors are prioritizing, but this year (with fewer annual public check-ins due to the pandemic) it’s based on a survey of 600 towns and villages. The results of the report are broken down into urban, suburban, suburban and rural areas, with a graph included showing how different types of communities rated different issues (see Figure 1).
In addition to infrastructure and housing, the remaining five priorities included municipal budgets, public safety and economic development. (The final concern about all community types was listed as “demographics” despite the pandemic-induced immigration freeze threatens to undermine population growth in urban areas across the country.)
In some cases, the responses to the report contrast with the prevailing narratives. Although public safety is the number one priority for mayors of large cities, it fell to third place in all other parishes. Part of this is because nearly half of those surveyed said the crime rate had remained unchanged over the past year, while 11 percent of mayors said it had actually decreased. Even among city mayors, only four in ten reported an increase in crime in the previous year. This complicates the narratives with a nationwide increase in crime. There was one there very real increase in gun violence and murder, and not just in big cities, but research suggests that the toll is taking highly concentrated and that America is not experiencing a general crime wave (most forms of non-murderous crime declined last year).
There have arguably only been a few years worse for American Mayors than 2020 since board chairmen were on the Front lines of the main social hot spots from COVID-19 restrictions to police brutality. But one of the biggest worries expressed by the mayors last year did not occur. There wasn’t the kind of massive austerity many feared, and tough budget decisions were prevented (at least for the time being).
That’s because the federal government stepped in with unprecedented support for local governments. First in a deal between the Trump administration and a Democratic Congress and then under unified democratic rule in early 2021.
“The big story here is the stabilization financing by the federal authorities,” says Schragger. “A lot of money flows into cities of different sizes. A lot of resources come from the federal government. “
Austerity was initially a threat. Federal support only supported municipal budgets after the first cuts were made at the beginning of the pandemic. The report found that around a quarter of cities saw fewer infrastructure upgrades over the past year as investments were suspended or postponed during the worst outbreak. In addition, 39 percent of those questioned stated that the quality of roads and bridges had deteriorated during this time.
For Bozeman, the infusion of federal funds from the Biden administration means that the infrastructure priorities, which the city has wanted to invest in for many years, have instead been postponed to the beginning of 2021.
“We use our funds to prioritize our capital improvement projects,” says Andrus. “These are large projects that span the water, wastewater and broadband categories. They were planned for years into the future. But we’re postponing them because of that [American Rescue Plan Act] Medium.”
For many cities, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of infrastructure to their residents and community cohesion. Fifteen percent of city officials surveyed said the profitability of broadband was one of the biggest challenges their community faced over the past year. (Twenty percent identified it as the main driver of positive change, further highlighting the need for broadband to thrive economically during the pandemic.) The report also cites a Trust for Public Land, which finds that 100 million American residents are within a 10- Minute walk from their home, a shortage highlighted by the pandemic.
For cities like Bozeman, and less fortunate areas in particular, NLC argues that further federal support is needed to tackle the huge backlog in infrastructure projects that city guides have identified as their # 1 priority.
“While infrastructure debates in Washington feel like partisan politics right now, the data shows that delaying infrastructure investments is hurting every single community in the country,” said Clarence Anthony, CEO and executive director of the National League of Cities.