Elinor Smith

HELENA (UM Legislative News Service) -- The House Taxation Committee is considering a bill that would allocate $30 million of the coal tax fund -- a pool of money from taxes on natural resources collected in Montana -- to help pay for low-income housing across the state. 

Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, is the sponsor of House Bill 546. He sponsored House Bill 16 in 2019 as well, which established the Coal Trust Multi-Family Homes Loan Program. HB 546 would renew the program and double the funds for it. 

“It leads to an important accomplishment of providing homes, but it also provides high-paying jobs in a multitude of communities because it's important that this money go to different places in our state. And as you'll hear from proponents of projects that have been completed -- it is very geographically diverse,” Fern said. 

There were 16 proponents of the bill who said the bill would not only provide affordable housing across the state for Montana’s most vulnerable populations, but add interest payments into the coal trust fund.

Beki Brandborg is an affordable housing developer in Montana, the owner of Echo Enterprises and member of the Montana Housing Coalition Board of Directors. She said the coal tax loan program is the only reason she can do $4 million of renovations in Havre. The apartments she’s renovating house 32 tenants. She said the people living in the apartments deserve to live in nice, safe and modern housing and the loan program lets her give that to them.

“My commitment to the USDA Rural Development program is that the apartments remain viable for 40 years. So it is inherent that I do a very good job in the renovations. Again, the residents are senior citizens, working families, people with disabilities and a good number receive SSI or SSDI. The Coal Trust Family Loan Program has made it possible for these residents to have a safe and affordable home, and without it, the project would've been completely stalled and not taken place,” Brandborg said.  

The coal trust loans would be provided only to those who are developing low- and middle-income housing. The loans would be administered by the Board of Housing which would approve applications and make a fair timeline to pay the loans back. As soon as payments are made on the loans, that money will go back into the coal trust fund. 

According to a report released by the Montana Department of Labor Economy about 42% of renters in Montana are cost burdened, meaning they pay 30% or more of their income on housing. For homebuyers, the price of housing increased 50% from the first half of 2020 to 2022 while earnings only increased by 7.2% in that time, according to the report.

There were no opponents of the bill and the committee did not take immediate action.