Competing bids drove the prices of Bonner’s historic mill homes up last summer as some buyers pounced on the relatively affordable inventory just east of Missoula. Others worry the once working-class neighborhood is headed down an unsustainable path.

Last summer, Bonner Property Development sold more than half the 42 homes in Bonner that were originally built for mill workers in the late 19th century. In January, the Missoula County Board of Commissioners gave preliminary approval for the remaining 19 homes closest to the Blackfoot River to be subdivided into individual parcels. Barring major complications, those homes could be on the market as early as June.

The first sale was a boon for some first-time home buyers caught in the ruthless Missoula housing market. Some of the renters living in the houses in January 2021 saw the sale as a great opportunity since the company gave tenants the option to buy before offering those properties on the open market. About five renters bought their home before the company listed the others in early April.

However, Bonner property values have already begun to rise and the costs of the next wave of mill homes — which range between 1,200 and 1,800 square feet — will be higher. When the initial sale was announced in January 2021, Bonner Property Development co-owner Steve Nelson said he expected to list the homes for between $250,000 and $350,000. While Nelson and his partners, Mike Boehme and Mike Heisey, haven’t decided prices for the homes becoming available this summer, Nelson said he expects most will start at closer to $350,000 and above. 

“What we are finding ourselves in is this cycle of what might be affordable today immediately is going to be unaffordable.”

Dave Strohmaier, Missoula County commissioner

Last year, the company increased the price of the houses as the summer progressed. On average, each house got eight to 10 offers, Nelson said, always above the asking price. The company put the first house on the market in April and closed on the last house at the end of August.

Dave Strohmaier, a Missoula County commissioner whose district includes Bonner, expects that if those initial buyers ever move, they will seek the highest price possible for their homes.

“What we are finding ourselves in is this cycle of what might be affordable today immediately is going to be unaffordable,” Strohmaier said. 

Sarah Grenfell was a renter who was able to purchase her home when the opportunity arose, avoiding competing bids. She is a graduate student at the University of Montana and expects to stay in the area for a couple of years. The neighborhood’s new owners, she said, are starting to bond and have formed a homeowners’ association.

“We all have dogs,” Grenfell said. “So that’s always fun.”

However, other renters who were unable to purchase their homes were nervous about their chances to secure housing in Missoula after the eviction notices from the company arrived in January 2021. Missoula’s rental vacancy rate since 2019 has dropped from almost 6% to 0.38%, according to the city Community Planning and Development department’s 2021 housing landscape assessment. During the same period, the average cost of rent rose from $862 to $1,100. 

ENTWINED IN BONNER’S HISTORY

When Kevin Wheeler and his girlfriend bought one of the historic Bonner mill homes, he said he was fortunate to settle down somewhere he has deep family roots.

Wheeler’s grandfather, George Neff, worked in the Bonner timber industry from 1942 to 1977, surviving various company mergers before he retired. Wheeler’s mother attended Bonner Elementary School. Wheeler would often drive through Bonner and wonder about the interior of each house, many still marked with their original double-digit address numbers above their front doors. From the outside, the houses seem similar. The ones on Stimson Boulevard are even painted to match in white with green trim. Walking through them, though, Wheeler realized each had a unique floor plan. 

“When they all came on the market, I tried to get in to see as many of them as I could,” he said.

At the time, Wheeler and his girlfriend, Dylan Moore, were renters trying to become homeowners. They’d already put four or five offers on places in Missoula, but kept getting outbid. Bonner seemed a bit more viable.

Sierra Geiger purchased one of the last available mill homes in August and paid more than $400,000. Geiger is a nurse and mother of two who grew up in the Bitterroot. She chose to move back to the state in 2020 to be closer to her parents. 

“I had this yearning to raise my kids in the environment that I had been raised in, in Montana,” Geiger said.

When she moved back, Geiger thought she would find a house to buy for close to $350,000. For 10 months she put in between 15 and 20 offers on homes from Bonner to Lolo. Her first bid on a Bonner house — $20,000 more than the asking price — wasn’t competitive, she said. 

The whole process was disheartening. 

“I’m a nurse. I make a livable wage, but it’s kind of become a not-livable wage,” Geiger said. “Or it’s just not as livable as it once was.”

She bid on three Bonner homes before an offer was accepted. The homes are more than 100 years old, and while the company refurbished the properties prior to sale, some still require upgrades. Still, she said, the house is “nostalgic and grounding.”

“Bonner has always kind of been a home base for really hard-working people, hard-working Montanans,” Geiger said. “They are more than houses. They’re truly a piece of Montana.”

THE PRICE OF VALUE

With the sale of the homes, Bonner School Superintendent Jim Howard wondered if the local elementary school would lose some of its families, but that hasn’t happened. But the increased cost of living in the area is hurting the school’s ability to hire custodians and paraeducators, Howard said. What the area needs is multifamily housing, but development is difficult because nothing in Bonner is connected to city sewers or water systems. 

However, with the influx of so many new homeowners, the demand for development in the area may increase. Aside from the nearby gas station, the neighborhood doesn’t have a lot in terms of amenities, Wheeler said. Having a grocery store nearby would be nice. Already he and Moore are trying to connect with the area. Moore got a job at the Kettlehouse’s Bonner brewery. Wheeler works from home, and plans to go to the local museum and see if it has any history on their new home. 

Zach French is one of the last renters in the area. His home is in the row of houses closest to the Blackfoot River, and that row needs to be subdivided before being sold this summer. With the Missoula County Commissioners’ approval of the subdivision, French planned to move out of the rental this month into a house with three roommates. When the sale was first announced, French had lived in the house for fewer than six months. He was frustrated he’d have to re-enter the cutthroat rental market in Missoula, where before he found the option in Bonner, he said, he went to multiple open houses where more than 30 prospective tenants were already waiting on the lawns. 

French considered buying his rental but decided it wasn’t worth the asking price of about $300,000. He still feels bitter, and is angry about the local housing market as a whole, though he acknowledges that developers are “doing the right thing from an economic standpoint.” 

The question of how to keep housing attainable in highly desirable mountain communities isn’t a new one, Strohmaier said. Missoula County just adopted a new housing plan aimed at creating permanent affordable housing, but officials are still grappling with what the solution might be, he said.

“It’s a problem if, by upgrading and enhancing the quality of life, you create the very conditions that are making it unattainable for folks to live there,” Strohmaier said. 

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