Daily Inter Lake: Bill aims to ease path to homeownership for volunteer firefighters

by Kate Heston

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester recently introduced a bill aimed at increasing affordable housing for volunteer firefighters and other first responders to bolster recruitment and retention.

“Finding affordable housing is becoming increasingly difficult for folks across Montana, and particularly for the men and women who volunteer to keep our communities safe,” Tester said in a statement to the Inter Lake. “If we want to retain our volunteer workforce, it is critically important that we make sure they have access to the same housing programs and subsidies as full-time public employees.”

The bill would let volunteers participate in the Single-Family Housing Guaranteed Loan program, which assists approved lenders in providing loans to build, rehabilitate or improve a home in eligible rural areas through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The bill allows volunteers to participate in that loan program even if their income exceeds the maximum allowable income level by up to $18,000.

The legislation also would make volunteer emergency service providers eligible to participate in the Good Neighbor Next Door Sales Program through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The program gives law enforcement, teachers, career firefighters and emergency medical technicians a 50% discount on a home located in a revitalization area.

Tester supported the bill because of its potential positive impacts in the state. In Montana, over 83% of fire departments are fully staffed by volunteer positions and another 9.6% are mostly made up of volunteers, according to Tester’s office.

The bill was also supported by the National Volunteer Fire Council and the International Association of Firefighters. Neither of the affected programs are substantially changing, Tester’s office said, but eligibility is being expanded for volunteer first responders.

Tester currently serves as chair of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus and recently passed a Fire Grants and Safety Act in April, which reauthorized the Assistance to Firefighters Program and the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grant Program to help departments buy equipment.

“I’m proud to join my bipartisan colleagues in introducing the Volunteer First Responder Housing Act to expand eligibility for government housing programs and help make home ownership a reality for our volunteer firefighters and first responders,” Tester said.

The bill is also supported by Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia, and Kevin Cramer, R-North Dakota.