Bill van Horn

As I sat in on the majority of the Housing Task Force meetings via Zoom (both the main Task Force meetings and the various subgroups), I read the recent opinion piece by many of the legislators who were on the Task Force with some interest.

First, I think it’s worth mentioning that manufactured and modular homes didn’t really feature in either the Task Force discussions OR the final report. In fact, a search of the final report in Adobe Acrobat didn’t find any mention of either “modular” or “manufactured.”

Where those DID turn up was in the public comments section of the DEQ website dedicated to the work of the Task Force. And they turned up with some frequency. Sadly, these practical, affordable housing options are not allowed in most new sub-divisions or other locations and that doesn’t seem likely to change.

Sitting through the majority of the meetings, I was left with the distinct impression that this process didn’t really include the perspective of Montana’s working families or those who wish to buy homes. Instead, there were many mentions of things like densification, multi-family units, and so on…concepts often centering around one thing: rental property.

Montana cannot rent its way out of the housing crisis…not if it wishes to remain a viable home for people who work for the cities, counties, and universities of the state or those who make sure we have food on our store shelves.

Having lived in rental housing for the majority of my life, I can say with some confidence that rent does NOT go down. You may have new complexes with lower rent, but to get that rent people have to move. That includes many up-front costs (security deposits, application fees, and so on) that are simply beyond the means of Montana’s working families.

When you’re living paycheck to paycheck (as many of our public service and service sector people do), you simply cannot pull $2,000 or more out of thin air in order to move and save $20 a month on rent (and forget about getting your old security deposit back). And since rent in places like Missoula can easily consume over 40% of a person’s take-home pay, the concept of renting serving as some kind of “bridge to home ownership” is frankly laughable.

The Task Force made a good start and did important work, but by neglecting to include the voices of their customers (the working Montanans who desperately need affordable housing, and not just another apartment complex) they missed an opportunity.

Building more apartments (densification, multi-family units, tenements…they all mean pretty much the same thing) may be good for out of state property owners (our apartment complex is owned by an Idaho company, and one near us was recently purchased by a Colorado company), but it doesn’t do much for Montana workers who don’t wish to remain trapped in rental property for their entire lives.