Can Tenants Take Back Bozeman?

Luxury construction is pushing locals out of their homes, but Bozemanites are not going quietly.

Joseph Bullington

Snow covers the roofs of residential homes and new luxury developments in Bozeman, Mont. at sunset. Diane Bentley Raymond/Getty Images

The old cracker box of an office building where Joey Morrison ran his recent mayoral campaign is under slow siege by the surrounding buildings. 

Only a couple years ago, this area was a neighborhood of modest homes. Morrison explains they were all gutted, destroyed and bulldozed to make way for the walls of newly built condos that now encroach from all sides. People used to live here, but — he gestures at the multi-story blocks of Lego-brick modern architecture — they’re all short-term rentals now.” 

Morrison co-founded a tenants union and built his mayoral campaign platform against the forces rapidly gentrifying this small city. He wanted his office here because it symbolizes the battle lines in Bozeman. 

The new builds pressing in on Morrison’s campaign headquarters represent the business vision driving this area relentlessly toward its apparent destiny: to be a sort of Western-themed amusement park positioned to grab piles of money from outdoors enthusiasts, remote workers and second-home buyers. This vision has, for years, had the run of the place — and you can tell.

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Luxury construction is booming up and down the Gallatin Valley, downtown has been overrun by boutiques full of Old West-themed pop art and high-end cowboy hats, tourists come and go from hundreds of vacation rentals, the owners of these second homes stuff their pockets—and the workers who power this economy find it increasingly hard to live.

Many end up homeless, living in the shelter or in vehicles in vast camps on the city’s margins. The number of people staying at the shelter has more than doubled in recent years. Benjamin Finegan, another co-founder of the tenants union, has seen surging housing costs push a lot of his friends and family — including his own parents — out of the area altogether.

It’s all been so drastic and notoriously awful that Bozeman” has become a one-word warning in the mouths of many Montanans— a lost cause and portent of what can happen to a town auctioned off to the outdoors industry.

Bozemanites themselves, however, are not going quietly: A spirited resistance movement led by Bozeman Tenants United exploded onto the scene recently to confront this wave of outdoorsy gentrification. And this movement — like Morrison — has been winning.

Morrison and Finegan helped found the tenants union after the Covid pandemic accelerated the city’s affordable housing shortage. The union launched in 2022 with a campaign against second-home short-term rentals. Finegan describes the widespread frustration of seeing empty Airbnbs on every block while struggling to find a place to live in the city you grew up in.”

The city’s commissioners, though, were mostly homeowners, so the main problem before the tenants union, according to Finegan, was how to make the commissioners feel renters’ pain. To that end, in February 2023, the union arranged a town hall where four commissioners faced questions about where they stood on affordable housing and short-term rentals. The 300 working-class audience members responded in real time, holding up paddles the union had handed out — one was green (for good), one red (for bad), and one was a picture of a waffle (for get a damn backbone).

It created this very, very intense atmosphere … that took the personal crisis that everybody in the audience was facing and experiencing in their own lives and made it a very, very public thing,” Finegan says.

The strategy worked: In October 2023, the commission voted to ban whole-house short term rentals in Bozeman. By the end of the campaign, the union, once a scrappy group of a dozen or so, boasted more than 250 dues-paying members.

The ordinance, however, only banned new short-term rentals, grandfathering in many others. Still, says Morrison, it’s far better than nothing. Companies have been building developments explicitly to be luxury vacation rentals, he says, and this ordinance should at least shut off the faucet.”

“Developers and rich investors [are] busy creating their own city."

As Morrison sees it, sympathy from owner-class commissioners can only get renters so far: Tenants need class allies in positions of power. The 28-year-old renter and social worker’s campaign for mayor, launched in 2023, took the gentrifiers head-on. Developers and rich investors [are] busy creating their own city,” Morrison says in a campaign video titled A Tale of Two Bozemans.” If they have their way, what most of us will be able to hope for is long commutes to come in and cut hair, wait tables or cook— strangers in our own city.”

The tenants union threw its full weight behind the campaign, knocking on thousands of doors to make the election a referendum on housing and gentrification.

On Election Day, three weeks after the union’s short-term rental victory, Morrison won resoundingly, knocking the incumbent mayor off the city commission. Per the city charter, Morrison will serve two years as deputy mayor before becoming mayor in 2026.

Working people of this community have felt deeply unrepresented by City Hall,” Morrison says in a recent interview with In These Times. That we won, and the type of campaign we won with, is a telling moment of the winds changing in this community.”

Joseph Bullington grew up in the Smith River watershed near White Sulphur Springs, Montana. He is the editor of Rural America In These Times.

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