Housing shortage continues to plague Mineral County

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There was an open house at Maple Street Cottages on Jan. 31 in Superior. The rental units are available for seniors who are 62 years of age and older and are on a fixed income. (Kathleen Woodford/Mineral Independent).

There was an open house in Superior at Maple Street Cottages last week. The two-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath rental units are available for seniors who are 62 years of age and older, and are on a fixed income. The hallway that leads from the front sitting room and kitchen are wide enough for wheelchairs and the shower is equipped for handicapped individuals. “We call these ‘aging in place’ units,” said Jim Morton with the Human Resource Council and he oversees programs in Mineral, Missoula and Ravalli counties.

There are three homes available located at 513 Third Ave. E. in Superior. It is part of Cedar Creek Properties and were made possible through a grant from the Montana Department of Commerce HOME Investment Partnerships Program. It’s a program that targets low-income households.

The units rent for $585 per month with a $1,170 deposit. Qualified applicants must have HOME income limits of $23,350 for individuals; $26,700 for two-person; $30,050 for three-person and $33,350 for four-person.

Morton said there are 67 low-income units available in Mineral County at The Eagle Apartments; Riverside Apartments; the Cottages at Edna Court; Superior commons; and Two River Apartments in St. Regis. There was a steady stream of potential applicants streaming through the open house held on Thursday where property manager, Rose Duncan showed people around the small home.

The units fill up fast said Morton and if there are more qualified applicants than units available they will either hold a lottery or do a “first- come first-serve” process. Others will have to be put on a waiting list.

AFFORDABLE HOUSING has been a problem in Mineral County for years and continues to plague the area. It can also be seen throughout surrounding counties, and is a problem on a national level, as well. Morton said there is legislation with Senate Bill 18 and House Bill 16 sponsored by the Housing Coalition to promote construction of low-income rentals. The legislation would offer state income tax credit to developers.

Two Rivers was the result of federal low-income housing credit. However, Montana has such a small population, federal funds are not readily available. Morton said out of 20 applications only about five get funded.

Private sector investors are reluctant to build in areas where the population is small and wages are low like Mineral County. There simply isn’t a good return on their investments. Unlike boom areas like the Bakken oil fields in eastern Montana and North Dakota. Where investors saw a quick return on their housing investments, some within five years. Some areas may see a longer turn, for example 20 years, which can still be seen as an appealing investment. But if they don’t see any payback and don’t foresee wages rising, it’s hard to attract affordable housing development.

As a result, area employers like the schools, hospital and lumber mill are having a harder time finding and retaining qualified employees. Also, families are finding themselves in multi-generational homes where children aren’t moving out once graduated from high school. Or adult children are moving back in with their parents sometimes with a spouse and children in tow, Morton said.

Another issue with the dynamic of the lack of housing is the loss of skilled labor. In a market like Missoula where housing prices continue to rise, middle income families can no longer afford to buy homes. Skilled laborers like plumbers, construction workers, electricians will move on to another community where they can make a living and own a home. Leaving areas like Missoula without a strong labor pool, “it’s not just that there aren’t as many people learning these trades,” he said, “but also, it is tied to the lack of housing. They aren’t going to stay where they can’t afford to live.”

It is a complex subject and in a recent report by the Missoula Realtors Association, a household with a median income of $84,000 would be needed to purchase a median-priced home. However, according to a 2016 report, the median income in Missoula is $46,550 and those living in poverty hovers around 16 percent.

Some solutions Morton suggest are for communities, like Superior, Alberton and St. Regis, to take over a portion of the expenses from the developers to make their investment more attractive. If roads, water and sewer was paid for, perhaps more developers would be willing to build. Of course, this ultimately would fall onto the shoulders of local tax-payers, “who then have to weigh the benefits of those expenses with additional jobs.”

Another solution is to go back 100 years to a time when employers built housing for their employees. Back in the heyday of the lumber mills and mining, companies like the Diamond Match Mill built housing for their employees. This was also seen where schools provided housing for their teachers. In Butte and Anaconda, housing was built for the miners and this can also be seen with the original homes in Bonner which were built by the lumber company for their employees.

“But that concept seemed to lose favor over time with the public when employees began to feel like it was servitude to the companies rather than a convenience,” Morton said.

However, companies are beginning to reconsider this age-old concept with ideas being tossed around for company owned housing for employees. “At the very least, communities like those in Mineral County need to start having a dialog about this issue and consider some of these concepts or come up with some of their own solutions. Every community is different and each has their own economic issues. They need to explore what would work best for their community,” Morton said.

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