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Lack Of State Housing Funding Puts Montana In Crisis

Homeless man sits in the riverside park in Missoula
Claire Burgeson
Homeless man sits in the riverside park in Missoula

A recent survey revealed some surprising opinions among Montanans. Professor Christopher Muste helped conduct the survey for the University of Montana and Stanford University.

“What we found is that a large majority, almost three-quarters of Montana, were willing to have the government spend more money specifically for low-income housing and for housing for homeless people.”

In 1999, Montana’s legislature passed a bill by Chris Christiaens to create the Montana housing revolving loan fund. The idea was to use leftover funds from another bill to support affordable housing. Christiaens:

“At the time that it was passed, we felt that there would be leftover funds in the housing and in the supplemental foods bill. But to date, it has not received any funding, even though it has gone before legislature several times in the past. ”

In other words, Montana does not spend any state money on housing assistance. It exists in Montana, but it’s all funded by private donations or federal dollars. In 2015, theU.S. Housing and Urban Development Exchange found that about 1,900 Montanans were homeless.

Eran Fowler is executive director of Missoula’s Poverello Center, a nonprofit that provides emergency, short-term housing, food and medical assistance.

She says that Montana’s empty loan fund means private and nonprofit organizations must fend for themselves.

“Homeless services in Montana are traditionally provided in a very grassroots way, by community donors, grants, foundations, and really are operated kind of piecemeal, and without any united system.”

And the federal money that funds the local housing authorities scattered across the state is declining. In 2008, the Helena Housing Authority was awarded over $600,000. This year, they got $170,000 less.

Sheila Rice, from the Montana Board of Housing, says that comes at a time when many Montanans are facing high housing costs.

“So about 50 percent of Montana renters pay more than 50 percent of their monthly income for their rent, and that just gives them hardly any money for everything else in life, so it’s an economic depressant if we don’t have homes that are affordable.”

Rice says Montana is either approaching or in a housing crisis right now.

“There are not enough homes for working families to buy, and the rents are so high that many of our senior citizens and Montanans with permanent disabilities are finding themselves not able to afford their rent.”

With nowhere else to go, people start turning to less than ideal options. Some affordable places around the state were built years ago and need renovations. But without funding, they fall into disrepair and some can no longer be used.

Perry Roberts from the Montana Rescue Mission shelter in Billings says he understands why new housing developments aren’t being proposed.

“In the Billings market at least, there aren’t private investors interested in developing low-income housing because there just is no financial incentive for them to do that.”

Roberts thinks that if the loan fund had a source of revenue, the money could be a good incentive for developers to build affordable housing.

Poverello Center’s Eran Fowler says that reducing homelessness in Montana is complicated and will take a lot of small steps.

“What works in Minnesota, brilliantly, might not work for us here in Montana. So we have to find a solution that works for our state and our communities locally, and that’s going to take a really solid understanding by our legislators and representatives at the statewide level.”

UM professor Christopher Muste says the recent survey also shows Montanans aren’t worried about proximity of services.

“We asked people whether they’d be willing to have housing for homeless people sited within a mile of their own house, and over two-thirds of the Montana population, urban and rural, were willing to have siting near their house. There was not a ‘not-in-my-backyard effect.’ People were willing to have homeless housing, specifically, close to their houses.”

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