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Congress must act on housing crisis

by Monica Tranel
| April 30, 2024 12:00 AM

For the past six months I have been talking to hundreds of Montanans about their concerns and hopes for the future, and the one issue that comes up every time is housing. Some of our neighbors and their kids are living on the streets. Young families who would like to live here can’t afford to. Businesses, like Pyramid Lumber in Seeley Lake, are closing down because the workers they need can’t afford to live in town.

There’s no doubt about it: The housing crisis is severe and it’s doing real damage to communities throughout western Montana.

But we’re not stuck: Local governments, developers and housing organizations like Missoula’s Homeword are undertaking smart, thoughtful and innovative efforts to solve the problem. 

And there’s a lot Congress can — and should — do to support those local efforts. 

For starters, Congress already provides financial support, in the form of tax credits, for the construction of affordable housing for low income families. That support is essential, but now even moderate income families find they can’t afford a place to live either. These families need access to federally supported affordable housing too, but access alone is not enough. Congress must increase funding for housing construction so that all those families who need it will actually have a place they can move into.

Congress can also help families pay for market priced housing with vouchers and tax credits. But giving families more money to pay for housing doesn’t mean there will be any more houses or apartments to be had. We have reached the point at which the cost of building new living spaces is simply more than many people can afford. We can’t expect developers to take on the costs of building new housing unless they know they can get fair prices and rents. And they can only get fair prices and rents if buyers have healthy household budgets.

Lower income and younger families who never had a chance to buy a home before prices and rents skyrocketed are the ones most damaged by the current housing crisis. On the other side of the coin are long-term residents and high-income newcomers on whom rising prices have little impact (except, when the tax bill arrives). These long-term residents are deeply attached to their communities and neighborhoods, and understandably may have misgivings about the development that is needed to keep housing affordable.

But everybody wants to be able to look out the window and see kids playing or walking to school. If young families can’t live here, vitality will be lost, schools will be hollowed out and civic organizations will atrophy. 

It’s up to the community to reconcile competing concerns about growth. But Congress must provide incentives to local governments and housing organizations to create zoning and building regulations that encourage affordable housing while protecting important community values.

Finally, all over Montana, and all over the country, private equity firms are buying up mobile home parks and either jacking up rents, or evicting homeowners and rolling the land over for other development. They can get away with this abusive practice because homeowners really have nowhere else to go — their homes are “mobile” in name only. 

By law in some states, mobile homeowners are given first crack at forming a group to buy the land before it can be sold to the private equity firm or other outside investor. 

That’s as it should be, and in Congress I will champion policies that will give homeowners an advantage in organizing and buying the parks where they have lived for years, and will remove any advantage for private equity firms in buying parks and displacing their residents.

Solving the housing crisis is a tough nut to crack and local communities are doing a lot to crack it. But Congress must do more. In Congress I will make it my business to see that it does.

Monica Tranel is an attorney and Democratic candidate for Montana’s western District for U.S. Congress. She lives in Missoula.