Tester looks to address affordable housing challenge as costs continue to rise

Citing housing costs in Missoula and Bozeman, along with a number of other Montana cities, Sen. Jon Tester this week pledged to take a deeper look at affordable housing and explore options that could address it.

The cost of housing has received its share of headlines in Montana’s two university towns, with the median home price in Gallatin County standing at around $450,000. In Missoula, it’s north of $300,000, according to the Missoula Organization of Realtors.

For most workers, such prices have become unattainable and that, Tester said, threatens the state’s economy.

“As I go around the state, just about every town that has more than a couple thousand people has affordable housing problems,” Tester told the Missoula Current. “It stops the recruitment of businesses and it prevents the expansion of businesses because you’ve got no place for employees to live.”

Those fears have been echoed in Missoula for the past three years, with economists warning that the city’s median home values could hamper economic growth. While local businesses are growing and looking for skilled employees, recruitment can be challenging when those workers can’t afford a place to live.

A number of studies have been launched over the past two years to explore the issue, and the city of Missoula is expected to release its inaugural housing policy this spring. That study will offer recommendations to address the challenge, one that’s largely market driven.

“This was pointed out to me five years ago in Havre,” Tester said. “A business group there said if they wanted to expand they couldn’t because there was no place for people to live. When you get to Missoula and Bozeman, the university towns, it’s always been a problem.”

While solutions will be further developed, Tester said his initial thought is to compile something of a panel to explore the issue. That could include members of the banking community, credit unions, and representatives from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

It would also include developers who know firsthand the challenge of building affordable homes and members of local government.

“We’ll need to figure out the best ways to lower the cost of housing,” Tester said. “If we set out to have a panel discussion about this, there may be some good ideas that come out of it that I haven’t thought of.”

The study taking place ahead of Missoula’s new housing policy is looking at a number of issues, including regulations that could drive up building costs. It may also explore ways to enhance public-private partnerships, develop more projects through community land trusts, and establish a housing trust fund.

Several bills are also being proposed in the Legislature that would expand the options available to developers who want to build affordable homes and apartments.

“If it takes tweaking the federal law, we’ll tweak the federal law,” Tester said of his efforts. “If it’s utilizing potential tax credits for community banks or credit unions to be able to loan some money for this, maybe that’s the direction for this. The final goal is to make sure we have more housing inventory out there that people can afford.”