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Apr 15, 2022   |  

Great Falls Tribune: Tester attends event celebrating homeownership program, discusses housing crisis

By: Nicole Girten

Great Falls will see 10 new homeowners thanks to NeighborWorks Great Falls' Owner Built Homes Program. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester attended an event Friday inside one of the newly built homes touting the success of the program and discussed the ongoing housing crisis both city and statewide.

"I gotta be honest with you when I walked into the house, I thought, you know, just another house," Tester said at the top of his remarks. "But it's not that, all you gotta do is look around. This is pretty damn nice."

Cascade County is slated to need 450 new housing units per year for the next 10 years, approximately 190 rental units and 250 owner units, according to the housing study produced by Great Falls Development Authority earlier this year.

Great Falls will see 10 new homeowners thanks to NeighborWorks Great Falls' Owner Built Homes Program. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester attended an event Friday inside one of the newly built homes touting the success of the program and discussed the ongoing housing crisis both city and statewide.

"I gotta be honest with you when I walked into the house, I thought, you know, just another house," Tester said at the top of his remarks. "But it's not that, all you gotta do is look around. This is pretty damn nice."

Cascade County is slated to need 450 new housing units per year for the next 10 years, approximately 190 rental units and 250 owner units, according to the housing study produced by Great Falls Development Authority earlier this year.

"The way it makes it affordable is that they're building," she said. "So they would need another 20 in this case, maybe $30,000 in loans that they can't afford."

Brenda Kukay of NeighborWorks estimated mortgages ranged from $900 to just over $1,000 per month, which she said families are likely already paying in rent. She said before the program some folks were renting or living with family.

Arey said construction is overseen by professionals and local contractors help to train folks on the construction end of things. She said the program typically takes between 12 to 14 months to complete but COVID-19 complicated their timeline, so for this group it was closer to 18 months.

Arey said Kukay works with families to ensure they're ready for the commitment the project requires. Arey said folks typically work one night a week and all day Saturday to make all the hours work with their schedule.

Affordability in Great Falls, Tester comments on state's slow distribution of emergency rental assistance
Arey said that Great Falls still has the ability to have some affordability.

"A lot of other cities have lost that," Arey said. "We have it."

She said she's grateful to partners at the local and federal level who help provide funding for these projects.

Tester spoke to the federal programs that help keep folks housed, including the emergency rental assistance program through the American Rescue Plan Act, but commented on how the state has handled the funds.

"I think the state has been slow in getting these resources to families across Montana," Tester said. "I would hope that this will change because we cannot play politics when it comes to keeping people in their homes."

The state distributed nearly $47 million of their more than $350 million allocation, with the Helena Independent Record reporting in March that the U.S. Treasury Department would be reallocating $53 million of the total funds to other states as Montana state didn't obligate at least 64% of the first round of funds.

When asked, Tester agreed that folks making minimum wage would be hard pressed to make rent and said that's where rental assistance can be used. The average overall rent costs over $900, according to the GFDA study.

"Trying to figure out ways you can get more rental units on the market as a good deal, some of these older buildings, maybe they can be rehabbed," he said. "I don't think the state of Montana wants to get into the rental owning business, but there's things you can do that make interest loans more affordable to allow the private sector to do it."

Tester said he would like to see ARPA funds go toward housing and workforce training, though he said that it's ultimately the local municipalities' work to decide where the funds go.

New homeowners
It was quite the housewarming party for new neighbors Cameron Weninger and Ed Dustrude on Friday morning. The two new homeowners are expected to receive the keys to the homes they built in the next few weeks.

Cameron Weninger, 24, a first-time homeowner who works at Johnson Madison Lumbar Company, said he was thankful for the program, adding that otherwise it would have been hard to get a house in this market. Tester said it would still be tough and recommended Weninger watch his books.

The senator commented on how in 1967 a house in this neighborhood was $12,000. Tester got his undergraduate degree in music in this neighborhood at the College of Great Falls, now the University of Providence.

Weninger said before the program he was living with family to save money.

Ed Dustrude, a 58-year-old veteran of Operation Desert Storm, is about to move into a three-bed, two-bath right next door to Weninger.

"When they say blood, sweat and tears, they're not kidding," Dustrude said of the building process. He commended the younger folks in the group that did most of the climbing and roof work.

He said he has furniture from his apartment and some from storage that he'll be moving over in the coming weeks.

Both were grateful for lower interest rates on their loans, one of the few silver linings of working on this during the pandemic, they said. However, they said just about everyone got COVID-19 at some point during construction and that caused several delays.

Dustrude said he bonded with Weninger over a shared love of hunting and that their new neighborhood will be tight-knit after this shared experience.

"When it comes to housing, the bottom line is there's no single solution, no silver bullet," Tester said during his remarks. "Big takeaway here is we need to take all the above, all-hands-on-deck approach to make sure we are supporting Montana's family's ability to keep a roof over their head."

https://www.greatfallstribune.com/story/news/local/2022/04/15/affordable-housing-great-falls-dept-ag-mortgage-loans-help-new-homeowners-new-home-us-sen-jon-tester/65350379007/

Office Contact Information

Senator Tester's Montana staff serves the state from offices in Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Great Falls, Helena, Kalispell, and Missoula. Please bring your concerns with federal agencies, academy nominations, and other situations to one of these Montana offices.

Billings

Judge Jameson Federal Building
2900 4th Ave N, Suite 201
Billings, MT 59101
Phone: (406) 252-0550
Fax: (406) 252-7768

Bozeman

Avant Courier Building
1 E Main Street, Suite 202
Bozeman, MT 59715
Phone: (406) 586-4450
Fax: (406) 586-7647

Butte

Silver Bow Center
125 W Granite, Suite 200
Butte, MT 59701
Phone: (406) 723-3277
Fax: (406) 782-4717

Great Falls

119 1st Avenue N, Suite 102
Great Falls, MT 59401
Phone: (406) 452-9585
Fax: (406) 452-9586

Helena

208 North Montana Avenue
Suite 104
Helena, MT 59601
Phone: (406) 449-5401
Fax: (406) 449-5462

Kalispell

8 Third Street E
Kalispell, MT 59901
Phone: (406) 257-3360
Fax: (406) 257-3974

Missoula

130 W Front St.
Missoula, MT 59802
Phone: (406) 728-3003
Fax: (406) 728-2193

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