Back to Stories

On Falling Forests And The Decline Of Affordable Housing

As hip mountain towns struggle to make a place for worker bees, Lance Olsen says our tax code, the timber industry and developers aren't focused on real solutions

A logging truck hauls what is becoming increasing rare, an old-growth tree.  Especially in the Greater Yellowstone region, ancient massive trees are hard to find and often when they're sold they go to into the contruction or decoration of trophy homes.  As columnist Olsen points out, the original intent of federal logging following World War II was to provide timber that would aid in a national push to provide affordable homes for American working familiies.  Photo courtesy Pixabay
A logging truck hauls what is becoming increasing rare, an old-growth tree. Especially in the Greater Yellowstone region, ancient massive trees are hard to find and often when they're sold they go to into the contruction or decoration of trophy homes. As columnist Olsen points out, the original intent of federal logging following World War II was to provide timber that would aid in a national push to provide affordable homes for American working familiies. Photo courtesy Pixabay
As readers of
Mountain Journal know all too well, concerns about forest conservation and affordable housing have drawn increasing attention in the Greater Yellowstone region. What may be somewhat less known is that the pairing of these issues has had a long and colorful history spanning the past 70 years.

In his posthumous 1947 book, Breaking New Ground, considered a classic, Gifford Pinchot, an early head of the US Forest Service, wrote that,  “The rightful use and purpose of our natural resources is to make all the people strong and well, able and wise, well-clothed, well-housed…with equal opportunity for all and special privilege for none.” 

Back then, if only briefly, America’s political leadership was listening, and responsive to ordinary needs and dreams of being “well-housed.” In 1949, America passed its Housing Act, which stated that it is the policy of the United States to provide “…a decent home and suitable environment for every American family.” With this, Congress stated a clear end-use of forest products when logging delivers wood to the market. That was the end-use then. It’s not happening now, but it remains a core rationale promoted by the logging industry. After all, there’s plausibly no better way to endear logging to the public than to connect the dots from falling forest to rising homes for families. 

This basic rationale casts homes as needs, with forest conservation and especially wilderness designation thus an unnecessary luxury. Alas, while preaching a pious public line of family values, politicians of both major parties have provided the means by which forest falls so that every wealthy family could afford luxurious housing and trophy home

In the US, the Mortgage Interest Deduction has played an important role in this switch. Tax givebacks under the Mortgage Interest Deduction let extravagant homebuyers deduct interest costs of borrowing for bigger and more expensive homes. This tax deduction is even given for second homes/vacation homes, even in habitat important to endangered species, even in forests prone to fire as the western US gets hotter and drier, and in many cases driving demand for toppling of  shrinking old growth forests to get logs big enough to impress. 
Tax givebacks under the Mortgage Interest Deduction let extravagant homebuyers deduct interest costs of borrowing for bigger and more expensive homes. This tax deduction is even given for second homes/vacation homes, even in habitat important to endangered species, even in forests prone to fire as the western US gets hotter and drier, and in many cases driving demand for toppling of  shrinking old growth forests to get logs big enough to impress. 
In 1995, for example, Winton Pitcoff summed up the state of housing in America for March/April issue of Dollars & Sense. Pitcoff reported that,  “Thirty years ago the nation boasted a surplus of housing affordable to low income people. Today there is a shortage of more than four million units.” 

The loss was no secret. It was actually a matter of public record. By 1995, the U.S. Census Bureau's American Housing Survey would report a "43 percent decline over the last two decades in the number of low-rent units in the private housing market."  

This decline continued under Democrats as well as Republicans. Pitcoff explained that the supply of affordable housing declined by 900,000 units” in just the two years from 1996-1998 alone. That trend has only accelerated in Greater Yellowstone. As even working professionals—including teachers, city workers, firefighters and police officers—of Bozeman, Jackson Hole and the east side of the Tetons in Idaho how difficult it is to find affordable rentals. In Jackson Hole, a large number of second homes sit vacant for months; meanwhile, service workers have had to resort to living in tent camps.

According to Dollars & Sense magazine, mortgage interest giveaways amounted to $82 billion in 1999 alone, much of it tapping forests for the sake of the prosperous, while the poor were priced out. Cushing Dolbeare, founder of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, was cited in a Dollars & Sense interview saying, “ If we were willing to spend as much on low and middle income housing as we do on the Mortgage Interest Deduction, we’d have more than enough to solve the housing crisis.”

During recent construction booms, the Wall Street Journal would report in early 2000, homes get bigger.  Like Americans’ waistlines, the Journal observed, the new American home was getting much bigger, and more extravagant. While affordable housing was uncomfortably rare for the Americans who most needed it, the fortunate were demanding homes with “more bedrooms, more bathrooms, and more flourishes than ever before.” 

Architects and even the builders of luxury homes were noticing the trend. An architect told the Journal that the trend was “appalling.”  He said that the bigger-is-better trend was about showing off to neighbors.  In his opinion, people buying luxury homes were saying, “I can be a 1920s tycoon like anybody else.” 
Architects and even the builders of luxury homes were noticing the trend. An architect told the Journal that the trend was “appalling.”  He said that the bigger-is-better trend was about showing off to neighbors.  In his opinion, people buying luxury homes were saying, “I can be a 1920s tycoon like anybody else.” 
One American  builder of luxury homes interviewed by the Wall Street Journal was quoted saying, “Does anybody need all this? No.” 

Is this why people demand more logging in the Greater Yellowstone?

In 1981, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton gave this broad trend a close look in their book, The Meaning of Things.  The two behavioral scientists say that “a habit of consumption can become an end in itself.” Locked into “deadly inertia,” they say, the drive to possess more and more becomes an “addiction” that has been described as “terminal materialism.” 

As Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton see it, when people enter this state of mind, “… the earth, the forests, the dwellings, and the psychic energy of people can all be mined for the specific utility of the transaction, regardless of what wider consequences or outcomes these acts might cause.”  So understood, the simultaneously perverse character of American forest- and housing- policy alike has come to an ugly state of affairs ecologically, economically, politically, and socially.
This 83-unit housing complex built by the social service organization HRDC in Bozeman in partnership with local banks and credit unions, targets working-class, low-income families. Some of the units are available to residents earning, on average, $25,000 annually.  This kind of affordable housing is incredibly rare as Bozeman's growth leads the state and is one of the fastest-growing non urban areas in America.  Today average affordable housing in general starts at around $200,000 in Bozeman; much more than that if you live in Jackson Hole.  Photo courtesy HRDC/Future West
This 83-unit housing complex built by the social service organization HRDC in Bozeman in partnership with local banks and credit unions, targets working-class, low-income families. Some of the units are available to residents earning, on average, $25,000 annually. This kind of affordable housing is incredibly rare as Bozeman's growth leads the state and is one of the fastest-growing non urban areas in America. Today average affordable housing in general starts at around $200,000 in Bozeman; much more than that if you live in Jackson Hole. Photo courtesy HRDC/Future West


About Lance Olsen

Lance Olsen has been involved with science and wildlife conservation in the Northern Rockies for more than four decades.  A former executive director of the Missoula, Montana-based Great Bear Foundation, he worked with noted bear researchers, including Drs. Charles Jonkel and John Craighead. He is based in Missoula, Montana.
Increase our impact by sharing this story.