Focus on expensive homes leaves many with no options

HELENA - An emphasis on building upscale homes has left a statewide shortage of affordable housing, a report by a Helena-based group concludes.

The Montana Smart Growth Coalition report said builders have focused on larger, more expensive homes, leaving more than 14,000 low-income and disadvantaged families in need of affordable places to buy or rent.

"There is an obvious shortage of housing units available to the poor in Montana," the report states. "Many low-income families in Montana cannot afford fair market rent" of $483 per month for a two-bedroom unit.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development defines affordable housing as 30 percent of one's income.

Byron Roberts, executive director of the Montana Building Industry Association, said the report's conclusions mirror his group's findings.

"Montana has probably got one of the highest rates of home ownership in the nation, exceeding 70 percent," Roberts said Monday. "But for the other 30 percent, owning a home is often unattainable."

Between 1990 and 1996, Montana added 10,867 single-family homes to the housing stock, as well as 1,090 duplexes, 1,514 triplexes and 3,226 structures with five or more units.

According to figures from the Montana Housing Condition Study, conducted by the Alternative Energy Resource Organization in Helena, new homes are larger and more elaborate, tending toward more bedrooms and bathrooms.

Roberts said that emphasis is market-driven. "Those who can afford homes often want bigger, more elaborate ones."

Statewide, 68 percent of all residential properties are single-family homes, 16 percent are multifamily units, and 16 percent are mobile homes.

However, nearly 86 percent of all new building permits are for single-family homes.

Despite the state's shortcomings in affordable housing, efforts are being made to correct the deficiency, the Smart Growth Coalition said.

Montana has received $1.5 million in grants from HUD as part of a $25 million national package.

Several programs are also under way to help American Indians find homes, such as $500,000 to help the Blackfoot Reservation's Pikuni Industries manufacture mobile homes, and Project Walking Shield, to help move recycled homes from Malmstrom Air Force Base to area reservations.

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