Community, Demography

Economic Drivers and Housing Shortages

Back in 1960, Lincoln County was timber, mining and farming.  There was a fairly stable population, jobs were available, and both small and large ranches.  Along with the Corps of Engineers planning Libby dam, and looking at flooding the lands near the Kootenai, by the middle of the decade our communities became boomtowns, needing housing for the newcomers who would be working on the tunnel, the railroad relocation, the highway relocation, and Libby dam itself. 

I was in high school – and Dad was looking at a trailer court, pretty much where the trailer court is today in Trego.  His advantage in negotiating with the company that had the contract for the tunnel was me being in high school.  Gail Tisdell, a classmate  who worked at Lynn’s Cafe over lunch hour, kept me informed about the company honchos lunch table discussions.  Long story short, we wound up with a trailer court built pretty much to the specifications they brought in from San Mateo.  Jack Price put in a trailer court down by the substation.  Up the creek were two more: Westwood Acres and S&S.  All told, Trego went from being virtually trailer-free to about 200 spaces in the course of a year. 

Likewise, when the tunnel and the railroad relocation ended, so did the largest trailer courts.  Across the county, we had a surplus of trailer spaces that would last for decades.  Many weren’t built to those California standards – I recollect septic tanks built from laminated cull 2×4’s.  The materials were cheap, the construction sub-marginal, and a place that had once housed 50 families emptied and left to collapse.

A half-century later, watching the ads and listening to people looking for housing shows me that we’re in a new housing situation.  Kind of a 55-year cycle – in 1910, all it took to resolve a housing shortage was an axe, a crosscut saw, a froe and a chisel.  In 1965, the spirit of capitalism moved in to develop trailer courts across the county as labor boomed in construction projects.  Now, we’re looking at a county that the USDA Economic Research Service lists as Government dependent. 

It says something when your county’s largest economic drivers are federal and state government employment – the definition is that over 14% of annual earnings are from federal or state government jobs.

Additionally, the ERS lists Lincoln county as a “low employment” county – and the definition is “less than 65 percent of county residents 25-64 were employed.”  The examples are often anecdotes instead of data – a friend from my youth, who hasn’t migrated out for work, explained that his highest paid years were in the seventies.  We’ve been migrating out for work, then returning, for several generations.  It makes a difference in the statistics. 

If you note the classification as a retirement destination county – “where the number of residents age 60 and older grew by 15 percent or more between the 2000 and 2010 censuses due to net migration.”  Home building, home purchases, are a bit easier for folks who are moving in at the end of their careers.  Some of our retirees are returning.  Others, not originally from here, still have the same motivation – in both cases, “going home to a place he’d never been before” is somewhat appropriate.

Anyway, watching the rental market shows that the world has changed.  An axe, saw and froe no longer combine with a strong back and a willingness to work to build a home.  There are safer, less regulated places for venture capital than building a lot of housing rapidly.  Young families compete with retirees – and it’s a lot easier to buy or build that second or third house when you’re holding the check for the house you sold in Oregon, or Washington, or California.