UM Study: Small Montana Tourism Communities Struggle with Housing

October 12, 2018

MISSOULA – Residents of Gardiner struggle with their fame as a gateway community to the world’s first national park, Yellowstone. This struggle, highlighted in a before-and-after study of infrastructure development conducted by the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, revolves around housing.

ITRR’s study assessed quality of life and image perceptions of Gardiner by residents, as well as support and attachment to their community before and after changes within it.

The study took place after “The Gardiner Gateway Project,” a partnership between local, state and federal agencies to restore and enhance the original year-round entrance to Yellowstone National Park and Gardiner. The project focused on sustainable infrastructure, tourism and economic development, including pedestrian-friendly zones, a historic downtown district, a welcome center with public restrooms and information, and improved signage.

“It’s not often that a before-and-after study is conducted for a community, so this was an excellent opportunity to see if resident attitudes changed,” ITRR Director Norma Nickerson said. “And attitudes toward some aspects of their community certainly did change.”

Over a five-year span, some quality-of-life attributes improved, while others decreased, but many residents cited the same issues. 

“Looking at the data and the comments written by the residents, it appeared that the cost of housing, availability of housing and the increase in short-term rental of housing became a bigger concern to nearly everyone in this small community,” Nickerson said. “And, honestly, I really wasn’t expecting such strong emotions on this issue, but it was evident in the data.”

Fifty-six percent of Gardiner residents said availability of housing was extremely important in 2013. Importance grew to 70 percent in 2018, but resident satisfaction with housing in Gardiner went down 12 percent. Housing availability had the lowest score of all quality-of-life indicators for residents and had significantly decreased in five years. 

Jeff Guengerich, Gardiner Chamber of Commerce president, wasn't as surprised. 

"We've been feeling the pinch on housing for a number of years now," he said. "Many of our businesses have had a hard time hiring and retaining employees due to the housing shortage, not to mention a lack of affordable housing." 

In the study, Gardiner residents were quick to point out short-term rentals as a likely contributor to the housing concern. As short-term vacation rentals have risen in popularity throughout many cities, towns in Montana are no exception. 

“For several years, Whitefish has experienced increasing housing prices, which have made it harder for the people who work in Whitefish to be able to live in Whitefish,” said Rhonda Fitzgerald, a small inn owner. “The problem stems from the sales of homes that are then converted from residential into short-term rentals, which decreases the available housing inventory, increases the cost of housing and, in turn, sends local employees hunting for housing outside of our community.”

Although housing was a main concern for participants in the ITRR Gardiner study, residents heralded some changes in the town as good. Residents’ satisfaction with Gardiner’s economy went up significantly from 2013 to 2018. Sixty-one percent of residents agreed that the resort tax has benefited Gardiner, 45 percent thought the new Yellowstone entrance made Gardiner a better community and 47 percent liked the recent infrastructure changes within Gardiner. While image perception on 10 quality-of-life attributes did not change, residents’ image of ample sidewalks and well-maintained roads increased significantly in 2018.

Although the number of residents who thought the future of Gardiner looks promising significantly dropped between 2013 and 2018, many responded they would be sorry to leave and would still rather live in Gardiner than elsewhere.

According to Guengerich, the housing shortage has helped community members come together to problem-solve the issue.

“Businesses and private residents have met regularly to explore out-of-the-box solutions,” he said. “There are a lot of layers to the issue, and there’s no quick-and-easy remedy, but it’s encouraging to see that much of our community is committed to digging in and tackling the housing problem.”

ITRR conducted the studies in June 2013 and 2018 as a door-to-door survey of all Gardiner residents, achieving a 60-percent response rate for residents in both years with nearly identical demographics.

The full study is available at All information and reports published by ITRR are online at


Table 1: Quality of Life Attributes that Changed Significantly from 2013 to 2018

Scale: 1 = not at all important to 5 = extremely important; Scale: 1 = not at all satisfied to 5 =extremely satisfied 

How IMPORTANT are the following characteristics to you?









Importance of the preservation of natural areas





Importance of  the availability of housing





Importance of the flow of traffic in Gardiner





How SATISFIED are you with the following characteristics of Gardiner?





Satisfaction with the preservation of natural areas





Satisfaction with the feeling of belonging in my community





Satisfaction with the peace and quiet





Satisfaction with the beauty of my community





Satisfaction with the understanding different cultures





Satisfaction with Gardiner's economy





Satisfaction with the stores with local/regional foods





Satisfaction with the controlling of urban sprawl





Satisfaction with visitors who respect my way of life





Satisfaction with restaurants with local/regional foods





Satisfaction with the flow of traffic in Gardiner





Satisfaction with the use of a bed tax for promoting Gardiner





Satisfaction with the quality of roads





Satisfaction with public transportation to and from Gardiner





Satisfaction with the availability of housing





Contact: Norma Nickerson, director, UM Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, 406-243-2328,