— Story by Tim Pierce – UM Legislative News Service
HELENA — Bozeman Mayor Cyndy Andrus told the Senate Taxation Committee Wednesday there’s a statewide affordable housing crisis that is quickly becoming an epidemic.
Andrus supports House Bill 16, which would offer $15 million from the state’s coal trust fund as a loan to develop low and moderate-income housing across the state. She said she, along with 19 other mayors in the National League of Cities, have looked at solutions to offer low-income housing.
“We look at how we can improve and evaluate regulations, we look at new programs and opportunity zones. But this is not enough,” she said. “(House Bill 16) is another tool in our toolbox to solve our affordable housing problem.”
Bozeman City Commissioner Terry Cunningham said only one percent of Bozeman’s housing rentals are vacant, and the lack of home options is negatively impacting businesses.
“Local businesses would like to expand, but their ability to attract qualified employees is being hindered by housing affordability,” he told the committee as one of 14 supporters of the bill.
HB 16, sponsored by Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, would only fund developing urban and rural multi-family housing, like apartment complexes.
The bill passed out of the House with a vote of 71-29. There, some lawmakers opposed the bill because of its use of coal trust funding. But Fern said housing developers will pay the money back with a 7 percent interest rate, and the Legislature, in part, is responsible for creating affordable housing.
“Well, I think it’s appropriate that the government is a partner in helping solve the problem,” Fern said. “I think this is one of the situations where utilizing our great asset can start this ball rolling.”
If the Legislature wants to use the coal trust fund, which currently holds about $1 billion, it would usually require a three-fourths vote in each body. But since the money is being paid back into it, only a simple majority is needed to pass the legislation.
The bill drew no opponents during the Senate Taxation Committee hearing Wednesday.
— Tim Pierce is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Greater Montana Foundation and the Montana Newspaper Association.