The data backs up Dorsch’s observations. In 2020 and 2021, moves from San Francisco to Montana increased by 140% compared to the previous two years — making Montana the state that saw the biggest increase in new San Franciscans during the pandemic.
Overall moves from the Bay Area increased by 51% during that time as well, according to data on migration patterns from the California Policy Lab, a research group based out of the University of California.
The data tracks movements of all Californian adults with active credit information. In order to analyze moves over the same time periods, we looked at data from the first seven quarters of 2020-2021 and compared them to the same period in 2018-2019.
While the S.F.-to-Montana increase was large in terms of percentage, the data only shows 360 total moves from San Francisco to Montana in 2020 and the first three quarters of 2021, so it’s not like the city is overwhelming Montana on its own. (Nearly 2,400 Bay Area residents moved to the state in 2020-2021, excluding Napa County, which didn’t have enough data for us to include in our analysis.)
But while San Francisco saw the biggest pandemic-era percent increase to Montana, all 10 of California’s most populous counties saw move-outs to the state increase significantly. And based on the 32 counties with enough data for us to measure, at least 13,000 Californians moved to Montana over the last two years — not a small number for a state of just over 1 million residents by the latest census count.
The reasons for this new influx of Californians to Montana are varied. One obvious one is California’s ever-more-prohibitive housing costs, which has contributed to pushing residents out-of-state at record levels during the pandemic.
For more financially secure ex-Californians who can now work remotely, like many of the tech-sector clients with whom Dorsch works, the Big Sky state’s spaciousness, scenic vistas and ample outdoor activities all contributed to its pandemic-era allure. The city of Bozeman has seen an especially large influx of Bay Area tech workers, according to Dorsch, because of its proximity to an international airport and relative connectivity compared to more rural parts of the state.
“Bozeman has kind of become a little Silicon Valley,” she said.
Not everyone is happy about the California-to-Big Sky pipeline. In the public Facebook group “Moving to Bozeman, Montana,” for instance, one user, posting a question about moving logistics in November 2021, apologized for being from California. Another user, responding to her post, warned her not to “California” her new home state.
A large share of Montanans’ frustration with incoming Californians appears to be economically based. From January 2020 through December 2021, home prices in Montana increased by 39% — the fourth-largest increase, by percentage, of any state over that time period.
“It’s insanity,” said Kelly Martin, a real estate agent at Windermere’s downtown Bozeman office. “Half the homes in Bozeman are well over a million and that’s definitely the out-of-staters coming in and paying cash…People born and raised in Montana, it’s almost like they’re completely priced out.”
He said that while the state is building homes “as fast as they can,” shortages of both homebuilding materials and construction workers have slowed the process down, further contributing to the low supply.
“There’s rows of houses that can’t be listed because they can’t get refrigerators in, or stoves. A lot of them are selling with no garage doors, just plywood [over the garages],” he said.
Dorsch agreed that out-of-staters, particularly Californians, are having an impact on the local housing market, and that this is partly what’s frustrating local Montanans.
“It’s very easy to point the finger at Californians who came from million-dollar houses that were little two-bedroom 700 square foot houses and [have helped] drive the price up,” she said.
But some of the tension is cultural, too. Dorsch, who grew up in Montana, still remembers when she moved back home from San Diego with her husband in 1993.
“And the same feeling existed then that exists now, with those who’ve been born and raised in Bozeman, for example, or Montana,” she said. “I don’t want to say they don’t like change, but when change happens, sometimes it’s challenging to embrace.”
Part of what Dorsch sees as her role, then, is to try and ease some of that tension on both sides.
“The conversation we have as realtor[s], with all our past clients and clients moving in, is you’re not moving in to change the way Montanans live,” she said. “Likewise, with locals who live here, understand that change is healthy, change is good, and if we don’t have change then we might be dying from a standpoint of economy.”
Susie Neilson is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @susieneilson