Economic development advocates from southwest Montana say access to housing is proving to be an increasingly prevalent issue when it comes to growing local economies.
That was the news from three panelists who spoke at the NorthWestern Energy building Thursday for the 2019 Economic Outlook Seminar.
The annual seminar makes several stops throughout Montana each year and is put on by the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research. This year’s theme was “Facing the Challenge of Affordable Housing.”
Economists who spoke earlier in the seminar noted that Montana’s cities and towns are seeing low housing inventory levels, which is part of a national trend. Meanwhile, some residents in Montana’s largest communities — places like Billings, Bozeman and Missoula — are getting priced out.
Joe Willauer, executive director of the Butte Local Development Corp. and Headwaters RC&D, described housing as a “huge” issue affecting counties in Headwaters’ service area, which includes seven counties in southwest Montana.
Willauer pointed out that, in a recent survey conducted in the region as part of a comprehensive economic development strategy, leaders from almost every community in the region listed housing as one of their top five challenges.
“It’s a tremendous issue,” he said. “If we want to be able to bring businesses to our communities, we’ve got to have places for folks to live.”
Maureen Rude of the Montana Housing Partnership agreed: Housing matters to the local economy, she said, especially for local workers who need quality housing to maintain their health and productivity. Quoting a colleague, she said, “Homes are where jobs go to sleep at night.”
Jim Davison, executive director of the Anaconda Local Development Corp., said Anaconda’s low housing inventory became especially apparent when Intercontinental Truck Body Co. moved from its former headquarters in Conrad to Anaconda in 2018.
The company, located just outside of town off Montana Highway 1, employs around 30 people. Many of those employees moved from Conrad to Anaconda for the transition. In anticipation of the new residents, Davison personally stepped in, driving Anaconda’s streets at night looking for houses without any lights on. He looked up the owners, and if they weren’t living in the homes, he asked them if they were interested in renting or selling.
Davison noted that Anaconda hasn’t seen a major housing development project in some time, pointing out that the Smelter City’s New Addition neighborhood was constructed in 1958.
Davison added that some manufacturing employees, engineers, and other medium-wage workers have had to commute from other communities such as Whitehall.
All on the panel seemed to agree that single-family homes between $130,000 and $200,000 are what’s needed for these types of workers and are among the most popular homes.
“There’s no shortage of very low (priced homes) — single-wide trailers, things like that,” Willauer said. At the same time, he has seen lots of listings for expensive, riverside properties. But what seems to be lacking are modest homes that a medium-wage worker can afford.
Some might look at Butte and Anaconda and wonder how communities with vacant properties could have housing inventory issues. But as the panelists noted, there’s a difference between housing in general and quality housing.
In other words, if a home buyer has to invest more into upgrades than the value of the home, then the home isn’t a very appealing investment.
“I think in rural Montana … there is a lot of available housing, but it’s not up to par. And doing rehabilitation on housing is really, really hard to do,” said Rude.
Her organization has tried to partner in the past with communities who wanted to incentivize rehab projects, but there were many challenges, including having to jump through hoops and check all the boxes required by federal financing programs.
“That’s an area that I think many of us need to think about,” she said. “How might we approach doing a really significant housing rehabilitation that really addresses people of all income levels?”