Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Housing experts on Tuesday told members of the U.S. Senate Banking Subcommittee that several bills now under consideration could help address affordable housing issues, especially those in rural America.

Sen. Jon Tester, a member of the committee, recently introduced the Rural Housing Service Reform Act. If adopted, it would help improve federal funding for rural housing programs and increase the supply of affordable housing.

“Housing is a big issue everywhere. It's a big issue in Montana, and in communities of all sizes,” Tester said. “In many areas, there aren't houses available and if there are houses available, nobody can buy them that makes a reasonable wage.”

Tester said the lack of affordable housing in Montana represents one of the top issues facing businesses. The cost of housing makes it difficult for local companies to recruit and retain workers, which in turn limits business growth.

Economic leaders in Missoula have expressed similar concerns in recent years, including the Missoula Economic Partnership and the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana.

Tester noted the recent closure of Pyramid Mountain Lumber which, when announcing its intent to cease operations, named the lack of employee housing as one of the primary reasons.

“If we're going to have an economy and communities that are vibrant, I think we need to get the Rural Housing Service Reform Act passed,” Tester said.

The measure has bipartisan support among committee members, Tester said, and housing experts support some of the reforms the measure would implement.

Among them, the bill would fix so-called Section 515 properties that were financed ages ago and now have maturing mortgages. That would make it easier for nonprofits to acquire those properties and ensure rental assistance doesn't end when the mortgage expires.

“Right now, that's a big concern because we have a tie with that rental assistance to the property,” said Robin Davey Wolff, the senior director of rural communities at Enterprise Community Partners. “We're already right now on the cusp of losing a tremendous amount of housing just to mortgage maturity. With that housing stock, we're also going to lose mortgage assistance.”

The reform act would also make permanent a federal pilot program that makes mortgage loans to Native communities. It would also update rules for a home repair loan and bring tools used to measure incomes in line with practices recognized by Housing and Urban Development.

The committee will also consider the Preservation and Reinvestment Initiative for Community Enhancement, or PRICE Act. Tester said the bill would establish a mobile home community improvement grant.

“Recent years we've seen out-of-state investors come in and buy manufactured home communities,” Tester said. “All of a sudden, those affordable housing options aren't so affordable anymore. Honestly, the people put at risk don't have a lot of options.”

Efforts to turn mobile home parks into community owned properties have grown in popularity in Missoula in recent years. A number of mobile home parks have been purchased collectively by the owners with assistance from outside organizations.

Jesse Ergott, the president and CEO of NeighborWorks in northeastern Pennsylvania, said the PRICE act could be a valuable tool to protect such communities.

“Many across our network are trying to mobilize manufactured home parks to purchase ownership themselves,” said Ergott. “Finding ways to empower those who live in those homes, and enable them to find their own local solution to ownership, is a way to control some of that before the out-of-town investors come in.”