Every two years, Helena experiences a temporary boom to its housing business. The legislative session, Jan. 7 to May 1, brings 150 legislators and their legislative pages, interns, staffers, spouses and lobbyists from across the state and beyond to the Helena area.
“It really is an intriguing temporary business in Helena,” said Hal Jacobson, former legislator and landlord. Jacobson was a representative in the House from 2000 to 2008 and is a landlord in the Helena area.
Jacobson said he never rented to any of his fellow legislators, but his in-laws did for many years.
“They were snowbirds," Jacobson said. "They would go south during the winter months and it was very lucrative for them to rent their home out to legislators during that four month period.”
This type of rental is appealing to legislators, they can rent a fully-furnished place with everything they need, from beds to bath towels. For the homeowners, it is a lucrative way to make a little money off their home while spending time in warmer climates. Jacobson said the majority of legislative rentals, in his experience, has been snowbirds renting their personal home.
More individuals have started to capitalize on the session when it comes to housing. Dozens of landlords willing to rent a place for four months list properties on online boards such as Craigslist. Many session-length leases cost between $700 and $2,000 per month. Properties nearest to the Capitol are the most highly desired, which is often reflected in the pricing.
The Legislative Services Division at the Capitol is involved in the process. According to Bri Nordhagen, administrative assistant at the division, their program, which has landlords submit their property for legislators to rent, has received 168 submissions. She said the list is passed on to both the Senate and House then directly to the legislators.
A form is provided to homeowners to fill out and return to the office. The property is then put into the database list that is sent to legislators. The legislators then reach out individually to inquire about renting properties.
Nordhagen said the range of renters is quite vast.
“Many are snowbirds, others have multiple properties and are renting some out, some are renting out the basements or a room in their house (Airbnb-style) and some are, of course, renting out an entire property,” Nordhagen said. “I’ve actually had a few submissions from real estate companies, but mostly these are private individuals reaching out.”
Airbnb rentals are fitting for the session. Shandell Warren, owner of Ocean Spirit Massage, has run an Airbnb-style rental connected to her massage property for some time. This year was the first time she decided to attempt to rent the space for the session.
“I wanted to get into possibly renting slightly more long-term to a legislator,” Warren said. The Seattle native started renting out her space shortly after moving to Helena in 2012.
“It used to take me three months to rent a place," she said. "This took less than a month to rent.”
However, Warren didn’t actually rent to a legislator. She had plenty of interest from legislators, but someone else jumped at the opportunity to rent her 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom space.
Warren said Helena is "a landlords market.” She said with rates growing faster all the time that “it’s nice for people who own homes here to be able to make some money.”
From home to hotel
Other Helena housing options expand their offers in order to compete with traditional rental properties. Callie Aschim, general manager of Helena’s Home2 Suites by Hilton, said services are a big way they set themselves apart from a traditional rental.
The extended-stay Home2 Suites location offers a swimming pool, hospitality service, free breakfast, a media room and more perks to set themselves apart.
“I believe management did their due diligence as far as research and choosing this brand in this location,” Aschim said.
The session was part of what influenced the construction of the property.
In the past eight months, Aschim said government lodging has accounted for the majority of the Home2 Suites’ business.
Hotel businesses see a big boost to income every session. According to figures from the Montana Department of Commerce, the city of Helena sees a double-digit increase in bed tax collected during the first quarter of every session year.
In 2017’s first quarter, a 13 percent positive growth of $236,573 was collected in bed taxes. The same quarter in 2018 saw an 8 percent decline and $216,992 collected.
The 2013 session enjoyed a 22 percent positive increase of $196,956 in collected bed taxes compared to 2014, which saw a 3 percent decrease in collections equaling $190,692.
This pattern continues for every two year period going back 30 years.
It is unclear how the additional luxuries of Home2 Suites’ might factor into a legislator or lobbyist’s decision to stay there, but Aschim said she is excited to see how the business’s first session plays out.
Jacobson said many of his fellow legislators were looking for a place where all they needed was a bag of clothes.
“Renting a house or apartment is mainly just a place for legislators to crash at night,” Jacobson said. “It isn’t uncommon for legislators to go in at 7 a.m. and leave 12 to 14 hours later.”
Many session receptions offer legislators free food and many legislators save part of their per diem by rooming with another legislator. Overall, the place to stay acts more as a place to shower and sleep more than a home for legislators. Notably many legislators travel home on the weekends.
Jacobson said that of the 150 legislators, around 10 to 15 live in Helena or close enough to where they don’t have to drive. The other 130 plus usually rent a space in the area.