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As of last week, 5,722 families were on Billings Housing Authority waiting lists for affordable housing. Some families wait years to get one of 1,100 Section 8 vouchers. Wait lists for public housing also are longer than the list of rental units.

Where do people live when they can’t afford rent?

Some live in substandard housing (e.g. holes in the floor, mold in the walls), in vehicles, in shelters, couch surf (even with children) or move from one relative’s place to another, said Teddi Shorten of Billings Housing Authority. “They move a lot.”

According the Montana Budget and Policy Center based in Helena, 93 percent of the Montana households using federal housing assistance include children, elderly or disabled adults. In a report issued earlier this year, the policy center said that 29,000 low-income Montana households (the majority of whom live below the poverty level) spend more than half of their income on rent. That leaves precious little for all other necessities.

Statewide, there are twice as many applicants for rental housing vouchers as there are rental housing vouchers.

Everything in life is harder when people don’t have a safe, decent place to live. Children do better in school when the family has stable housing. Workers get to work on time and they don’t have to change jobs with frequent moves. If there’s no affordable place to live where the jobs are, there won’t be enough workers.

Legislative action

The Montana Legislature’s Local Government Interim Committee recognized the affordable housing crisis and endorsed three bills intended to increase the supply of housing units.

Sen. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, has introduced Senate Bill 18 to establish state Workforce Housing Tax Credits.

Montana already allocates federal tax credits that help fill the gap between what it costs to build housing and what the developer can collect in rent from people with low to moderate income. Last month, the Montana Board of Housing awarded $30.6 million in federal tax credits to affordable housing projects in Havre, Helena, Ronan, Whitefish and Billings where St. John’s Lutheran Ministries plans to construct 54 apartments for seniors.

Unfortunately, 12 other projects didn’t get tax credits because the program is so limited.

MacDonald’s Senate Bill 18 proposes to make up to $8.5 million in state tax credits available annually starting in January 2022. That would allow developers (usually nonprofit organizations) to tap into another federal program that provides a less generous tax credit, but which still makes projects financially feasible when paired with state tax credits, according to Sheila Rice, a member of the state Board of Housing.

The proposed Montana Workforce Housing Tax Credit could double the amount of affordable housing built in our state every year it is in place, Rice told The Gazette.

That claim is based on the experience of 14 other states that already have seen success with their own state housing tax credits. Colorado, for example, reported that in 2016 its state housing tax credit generated 1,299 housing units, 3,289 jobs and more than $525 million in economic impact.

Housing tax credits work like this: The state Board of Housing awards them to eligible projects on a competitive basis. The nonprofit developer then sells the tax credits to investors to generate cash to help finance low-income housing projects that otherwise would be financially unfeasible.

In addition to MacDonald’s bill, Sen. Carlie Boland, D-Great Falls, has introduced Senate Bill 15 that would add “infrastructure costs of affordable housing projects” to the list of projects that can be financed with funds from the Treasure State Endowment and the Big Sky Economic Development Program.

Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, has introduced House Bill 16, which would direct the Montana Board of Investments to allow the Montana Board of Housing to use $15 million from the coal tax trust fund “to make loans for the development and preservation of homes and apartments for low- and moderate-income” Montanans.

These three committee bills are good steps toward easing the affordable housing crisis. We call on lawmakers to support them when they get to Helena.

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The Billings Gazette

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