Nicole Girten

(Daily Montanan) Finding a place to live in Montana is still out of reach for many Montana residents, exceeding national averages for home prices and growing 105% since 2017, according to a Montana Department of Commerce data presented Wednesday.

Whether you’re looking to buy a house or rent, it’s going to cost a pretty penny in the Treasure State, and legislation aimed at helping the cause is tied up in the courts, which one representative said during Wednesday’s Local Government Interim Committee hearing was “disappointing.” The state issued an appeal in the case earlier this month.

The department said homeownership for middle- to low-income residents is a “near impossibility” given the spike in prices, high federal interest rates due to inflation and median household income that hasn’t kept up. And renters feel it too – with low vacancy rates as people struggle to buy their own homes, leading to residents with higher incomes still being in the rental market and, in part, leading to rent increases.

Sen. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, said she saw rental market issues as she was looking for a rental property for a relative.

“I can’t believe what they’re charging for junk, really,” Dunwell said.

Montana has less “cost burdened” renters than the rest of the country, meaning fewer renters pay 30% or more of their income towards housing than the rest of the country. However, the report acknowledges rent prices vary by when the lease starts, and the report says if renters have to leave, they typically will have to pay more for their next housing arrangement.

The department said in its report that median home sales prices have “significantly outgrown the national median sale price since June 2020” and peaked last summer at $523,900 – which was 70% higher than when growth started summer of 2020.

The median income needed to purchase a home in 2023 was $141,000, that’s up from $124,000 in 2022. Only the top 20% of Montana households could afford the median house in 2022, and that percentage dropped in 2023 as well.

Interest rates have also increased, from 5.34% in 2022 to 6.66% in 2023, as outlined in the department’s presentation.

Montana’s population has expanded, growing by a record 36,000 people since 2020.

The legislature, guided by recommendations from Gov. Greg Gianforte’s Housing Task Force, passed legislation last session to help with the affordable housing crisis in the state, including Senate Bill 382, the “Land Use Planning Act,” aimed at adjusting single-family zoning requirements in bigger municipalities to allow for more density.

But a judge recently temporarily stopped the legislation from being implemented as he believed it could be unconstitutional.

During a litigation update to the legislative committee Wednesday, Dunwell asked if the state would be appealing the decision. When staff said it was unclear but unlikely, she said it was “disappointing” because she supported the legislation and in light of the department data on the housing crisis presented during the meeting.

However, the state did file an appeal to the state Supreme Court in the case on Jan. 17.

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