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Montana Legislature to consider new tools for solving housing challenges
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Montana Legislature to consider new tools for solving housing challenges

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Tyson O'Connell

Montana’s housing situation is not getting better. Across the state, communities face shortages of good homes that most of us can afford to rent. Without affordable homes, businesses cannot recruit workers. We are asking the most vulnerable to forego basic needs to spend too much on rent.

The Montana Housing Coalition (MHC) is a diverse group of local housing authorities, for-profit and nonprofit developers, cities, contractors, lenders, economic development teams, cities, and community leaders who advocate for affordable homes in Montana for working families, seniors and veterans.

Fortunately, in 2019 we made some progress. At the urging of the MHC, the 2019 Legislature passed House Bill 16, creating the Multifamily Coal Trust Homes Program, which provides loans to build and rehabilitate affordable workforce and senior housing in Montana.

HB 16 provided $14.5 million in loans that leveraged an additional $17.7 million in investments and financed seven developments and a total of 252 apartment homes — mostly in small cities and rural areas in Montana. According to a December study by the University of Montana's Bureau of Business and Economic Research, that impact resulted in 421 jobs and $19 million in wages across Montana. All with ensuring these loans are paid back with interest to the Coal Trust with interest, keeping it whole.

More than anything, the Multifamily Coal Trust Homes Program represents the Montana value of investing in people. This bill passed the Montana Legislature with large bipartisan support.

HB 21, already approved by the House of Representatives and now in the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, reauthorizes the program so that it can continue to meet Montana's housing needs. With additional funds, the impacts like jobs and wages will increase in more of our communities, especially when both are more important than ever.

Montana is standing on the precipice of doing the hard work we need to address our housing crisis. By supporting HB 21, we can provide the private and public sector folks who are desperate to dive in and start building, the support they need to make a difference.

By using Coal Trust funds for loans for workforce housing, Montana benefits in many ways: the loans return more interest to the trust than other investments; jobs are created; outside investment comes into our state; and more homes affordable to the workforce are available to grow our economy.

HB 21 is not just a "feel good" effort either; the folks who know what it is like to lay foundations and invest in these projects support the program. The Montana Chamber of Commerce, the Montana Building Industry Association, Montana League of Cities and Towns, the Montana Association of Realtors, and the Montana Primary Care Association all see the benefits of this program from the ground up.

Montana’s housing problem is complicated, but this step in the solution is simple. Our communities are stronger when everyone can afford their home. Montana has the capital, the expertise, and the spirit to make it happen.

Urge your local legislators, community leaders and Gov. Gianforte to support HB 21 — the time to do something about affordable housing in Montana is now. We need HB 21 to continue investing in Montanans and their futures.

Tyson O’Connell is an affordable housing developer and board member of the Montana Housing Coalition.

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