Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Homelessness rises as courts block housing

by Jason Ellsworth
| February 11, 2024 12:00 AM

A new national report and a new court filing, both coming within the past two weeks, paint a dire picture for Montana’s housing crisis.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s 2023 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report has the startling data. Montana had the second-largest increase in homeless population (89% increase) and the highest increase in chronic homelessness (551% increase) in the nation. 

Sam Forstag, with the Montana Coalition to Solve Homelessness, pointed to two primary factors driving the sharp increase in homelessness: unaffordable/unavailable housing, and unaddressed problems with drug abuse and mental health. I agree with his assessment. The Legislature passed major reforms to address all of those problems. 

The 2021 Legislature established the HEART Fund with Governor Gianforte, directing $25 million a year to drug treatment and behavioral health. The 2023 Legislature invested $300 million into a long-term overhaul of Montana’s mental health care system, a commitment of unprecedented magnitude in the Treasure State. Both of those funds are currently proceeding as intended, with the HEART Fund recently being celebrated in Missoula. 

The 2023 Legislature also passed a series of land use reforms designed to improve Montana’s supply of housing without decimating our agricultural and rural nature. These bills were intended to alleviate Montana’s severe shortage of available housing (both for purchasing and renting), as well as make housing more affordable as supply catches up with demand. 

Four of the land use and property rights reforms are under litigation. A Gallatin County judge has temporarily blocked two of them. A recent court filing demonstrates the impact this judge-mandated blockade is having on the ground in our communities. In his motion to intervene in the case to protect his rights, Missoula resident David Kuhnle explains the situation: 

“Kuhnle was relying upon SB 528 to build the [accessory dwelling unit] he planned for his property…Kuhnle was ready to submit his completed plans once the new laws became effective on January 1, 2024. But, because of the injunction entered in this case, he is now facing building delays that will drive up his costs and prevent a renter from moving into this rental property…he cannot build as he planned, and he’s facing months and years of delays or even a wholesale elimination of the ADU plan he intended to follow, all because of the injunction.”

Per this court filing, Judge Salvagni’s ruling, and his ruling alone, is directly blocking Mr. Kuhnle from building three bedrooms of much-needed housing on his own property. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other would-be homes are similarly tied up because of the injunction. 

There are factors in the housing crisis, such as the cost of building materials, that neither the Legislature nor Judiciary can do much about. But on the factors we can affect, the Legislature is doing our job. Meanwhile, the courts are now directly blocking housing, contributing to the skyrocketing rate of homelessness and pushing homeownership further out of reach for average Montanans. 

Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, is the president of the Montana Senate.

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