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Tom Winter On America's Rural Housing Crisis

Tom Winter and I have been discussing the rural housing crisis in western Montana for 3 years, when he was a state legislator trying to fix it. If you listened to Dave Feldman's podcast/radio show yesterday (or today), you heard Tom talking about the problem and the solutions. He's running for Congress now, in his state's open new seat. And housing in front and center in his campaign.

Yeah, it's not just a problem in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. There is virtually no part of America that isn't having a housing problem, usually unaddressed or at least no adequately addressed. Blue America has already endorsed Tom's campaign and you can contribute to his campaign here at the Blue America 2022 congressional page.

The Housing Problem In Montana

-by Tom Winter

While Sinema kills voting rights, Manchin kills BBB, Pelosi defends insider trading, and the GOP laughs, my neighbors are kicked out of their homes in a housing crisis without precedent in the rural West.

It’s not just the cities anymore: Montana is also in a housing crisis. Kalispell’s rental vacancy is 0.4%, Missoula’s is 0.38%-- there’s simply nowhere to live for working people. Even for those who would normally be rich enough to buy in a healthy housing market are cut out. The median sales price in Bozeman just topped $730,000.

The failure of our housing market is being compared to the rise of billionaire playgrounds like Aspen, Vail, Telluride and Steamboat Springs. And for many readers these might seem like small vacation towns. But here in Montana they are simply the largest cities around. So yes, this is a similar situation to what occurred in Colorado. But here the comparison falls apart. Because it's not a tiny ski resort with literally no apartments to rent and dilapidated houses routinely selling above a $1 million-- it’s also Denver, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo.

It is a crisis without precedent in modern America-- an entire region with nowhere to live for the working class. Our towns are breaking. Without any excess housing capacity, every eviction, every redevelopment consigns residents to homelessness. A dilapidated, half abandoned motel currently housing 20 people in extended stay rooms is being redeveloped to provide more than 100 studio apartments. Debate the utility of more market-rate apartments coming up all you want-- with a such a broken housing market the immediate crisis is that those 20 residents have nowhere to go. Even if they could afford an apartment, it simply wouldn't matter. With no elasticity in such a small market, we’re sending our own neighbors onto the streets.

We have got to work together to fix this.

Our state government has abandoned us-- withholding ARPA funds, making it even tougher to get housing assistance. Build Back Better dedicated more than $170 billion to housing, the largest investment in history. But Joe Manchin, a man who lives on a yacht and drives a Maserati to his Senate chambers, stands in the way.

Montanans are too kind to allow our neighbors to become homeless without action, especially in the winter. So we are supporting warming centers, building some of the first overnight shelters in the state, and opening up couches and spare rooms to friends and neighbors who’ve lost their homes.

But everyone knows this is not enough. The future for Bozeman is bleak: Anyone making less than $100,000 a year either hoping to win the rental lottery by finding an open apartment or living out of their cars. For those saddled with debt or supporting children even that is impossible. They will move from Montana or join the unhoused. In winter. In the northern Rockies.

Montanans know this is untenable. We are simply not a functioning community if we deny housing to the great mass of people not rich enough to buy their way out or lucky enough to already have a rental agreement. And we all suffer the consequences of a non-functioning economy if we cannot grow.

Which is why you will see more and more alliances with the big cities on the coasts that have struggled with these issues for decades. More and more rural community leaders, public servants, and just plain regular people know the urgent need for reform that those other places have known for decades.

It used to be fairly rare to hear small town Montanans talk about these issues, or even be aware of them. Now, we have a broad swath of our population who not only understand source of income discrimination, but want to end it. Who want to change eviction laws to protect renters (especially during our brutal winters). Who know the inequities of landlord/tenant law and want it reformed. Who are proposing replacing our public golf courses with affordable housing. Who want to extend free public transit to the peripheries of our towns. And biggest of all, there is a growing call for putting local, state, and federal money directly to housing provision on a far larger scale than now practiced.

We value what we have built here. And through painful experience we are now ready to join our progressive allies in the cities in a national movement for housing reform. Because if the people of Seattle or San Francisco or Los Angeles love their hometowns like we do, then we must address our housing crisis.

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