HELENA - The need for affordable housing in Montana is taking center stage this week at a conference in Helena.
About 270 people are registered to take part in the annual Montana Housing Partnership Conference. This is the first time since 2019 that the event is being held in person.
Those attending the conference say it’s a valuable opportunity for people working on housing issues across the state to get together.
“I mean, anything that we've done in Helena to build housing, we've stolen from other people who have been doing things better than we have,” said Jacob Kuntz, executive director of Helena Area Habitat for Humanity. “And so we kind of treat that with that idea – that everybody's got a piece of the puzzle and we bring that together at this conference every year to figure out how to make housing better for everybody.”
Montana Housing, under the Montana Department of Commerce, and NeighborWorks Montana take the lead in putting on the conference. Cheryl Cohen, Montana Housing’s executive director, says the statewide attention on housing issues has brought more attention to this event as well.
“I think there's definitely more interest, and we are also looking at a broader range of topics – so not just focused on affordable housing development specifically, but how does affordable housing intersect with economic development and job growth? How does it intersect with providing services and health care to our most vulnerable citizens?” she said.
This year, one of the biggest topics will be adjusting to the actions the Montana Legislature took during their session. Lawmakers passed a series of housing-related bills, including zoning and land use changes aimed at increasing availability — as well as House Bill 819, which invests more than $200 million into several programs to support housing development.
“There were not dollars at the state level for housing, and now there are dollars, there's policies,” Kuntz said. “All those policies, all those dollars are going to come with challenges that we have to work through, to try to figure out how do we access the people that need it the most. And that's what this work is.”
HB 819 includes more than $100 million for infrastructure loans to support new housing projects, $50 million for “community reinvestment organizations” to assist families in finding attainable workforce housing and $50 million added to the Multifamily Coal Trust Homes Program.
One of the presenters at this year’s conference is Ashlie Wise, from Kalispell. She chairs the state Youth Action Board, which helps approve programs that receive federal funding to address youth homelessness — with a focus on sharing the perspective of those who’ve dealt with housing insecurity.
“In order to know if these programs are actually working, we have to have the voices of lived experiences guiding the way that we're piloting our programs – because they know best what works best for them,” Wise said. “They've already lived it, and they can tell you what resources within our resource spheres help them and what resources hinder them.”
Wise said she herself had previous experience with housing insecurity — and was still facing it now, even as she works three jobs.
The conference has gone on virtually during the pandemic, but everyone in attendance says it’s good to get all of these stakeholders together face-to-face again.
“The other conferences I go to, I notice that there's a lot of networking connections,” said Wise. “Within those networks, we're able to connect with others in our community, and connecting with others in our community is really the way to create those innovative solutions.”
An in-person event also allows for participants to do things like take a bus tour of Helena Area Habitat for Humanity’s build sites.
“As good as the digital world is, it can't really replace being with other people in a place and building relationships – being voice-to-voice and face-to-face,” said Kuntz. “So it's great that we're able to do this now in a safe way.”
The conference will continue at the Delta Colonial Hotel in Helena through Wednesday.