Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) The City of Missoula is closely tracking a number of housing bills before the Legislature and, to the chagrin of some, saw one of its hopefuls fail to pass its second reading last week.

House Bill 825, sponsored by Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, would have established a number of tools intended to increase the supply of housing by helping fund the infrastructure needed to support it.

The bill didn't pass the House last week, leaving Missoula city officials hoping other housing bills make the cut when the session ends next month.

“There are some efforts to get some affordable housing into some of the other bills, but I'm not sure how well those efforts are going at the moment,” said Jessica Miller, a Missoula city administrator.

Hopkins described his bill as a fiscally responsible housing initiative that had the support of builders, realtors, contractors and others in the industry. If passed, it would have represented the largest investment ever made by the state into housing.

The bill would have set aside roughly $200 million of which, $25 million would be invested with the interest going to fund planning grants at the local level to help cities and towns plan for growth. The remainder of the funding would be invested in a state pool to create a grant program to help cities build the infrastructure needed to support new development and housing.

Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula
Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula

Such funding can be difficult to find given the cost of infrastructure. The City of Missoula applied for a $23 million infrastructure grant back in 2019 but received just $13 million, which it has applied to infrastructure in the greater Mullan area.

Missoula has applied for the remaining funds several times without success, leaving the infrastructure needs in the Mullan area unfinished.

“There is no mechanism in the state of Montana to offer help for the development of housing to build out infrastructure,” Hopkins said while lobbying for his bill, which ultimately failed on a 69-30 vote.

Some opposed the bill simply in opposition to growth. Republican Rep. Bob Keenan said “Let's get back to the bumper sticker: Cows, not condos.” Others said the bill made no mention of affordability and had no mechanism to ensure the projects it helps fund have some level of attainability.

“I think it's the wrong approach. The bottom line is nothing in this bill assures attainable housing for people. The $200 million we invest should guarantee attainability,” said Rep. Kim Abbot, D-Helena, who opposed the bill.

Rep. Tanner Smith, R-Lakeside, believes the private sector will pick up activity once inflation comes under control. He doesn't believe the state needs to invest in housing at this time but should wait until the cost of goods comes down and let the private market meet the state's housing needs.

“There's so much money in the private sector that's just waiting for the cost of goods to go down,” he said. “It's a really bad investment for us to use tax dollars to build these projects out at the worst time to do. We all want to help with the housing crisis, but now is not the time to do it.”