MTN News: Sen. Tester: Lack of affordable housing reaching crisis level in MT

by Mike Dennison

HELENA – The cost of housing in Montana – or, in many parts of the nation – is becoming a crisis-level problem that needs to be addressed, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said Thursday, as he convened a “housing summit” in Helena.

“This isn’t unique to Montana; it’s across the country,” he told MTN News. “We’ve got an affordable-housing crisis going on right now.

“I think it’s already had detrimental effects upon the economy, on the ability of businesses to grow, on the ability for businesses to relocate to places like Montana.”

More than 20 experts, on everything from data to banking to home-building, gave their take on the scope of the crisis and possible solutions.

The Montana Budget and Policy Center, a Missoula-based group that studies economic issues and their impact on low- and moderate-income families, says three-fourths of Montana renters living below the poverty line paid more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities from 2012-2016.

The group also said the average cost of a two-bedroom rental in Montana in 2017 — $775 per month – is about $300 more than those living below the poverty line can afford.

More and more people are struggling to afford housing, said Andrea Davis of Homeword in Missoula, which builds affordable housing units and counsels people on home ownership and “financial literacy.”

With the median price of a home at $315,000 in Missoula, even those with good-paying jobs are finding it difficult to finance a home purchase, pay down student debt and pay for child care, she said.

“We’ve seen a trend over time, where people earning higher incomes are taking our class, because they’re trying to find an avenue to home ownership,” Davis said.

Crystal Eckerson, a home-loan officer for Opportunity Bank of Montana in Helena, said government programs exist that can help lower the cost of acquiring a house.

Crystal Eckerson, Home Loan Division branch manager for Opportunity Bank of Montana in Helena.
But the programs are used up quickly, she said, and many families earn too much money to qualify. And even if someone might qualify for a program, the price of homes still often is out of reach for many, she added.

“We went through the Great Recession and saw the mortgage bubble burst, and a lot of mortgage programs went away,” she said. “We’re seeing those make a comeback. But there’s a very big difference between me telling you I can approve you for something and actually have it be affordable in that household. …

“What we’re seeing is the percentage of the cost for just the house payment is taking up too large of a percentage of a family’s budget.”

Tester told MTN News that there’s “no silver bullet” to fix this problem, and that he organized the summit to find out what works, what doesn’t and what changes he might propose in Washington, D.C., on federal policy.

“The whole goal of this is to give me ideas, so that I can put them into policy and … see if we can get something done to help, in our case, rural America, all of Montana – but, really, the whole country,” he said.