Feeling the Squeeze of a Tight Market

Low-income families continue to struggle to find affordable housing in a low-vacancy rental market

By Molly Priddy
Val Niles and her son Brayden are pictured near their new home in Kalispell on March 27, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Val Niles just wanted to find a Kalispell rental with a yard. She had promised her son, Brayden, now 8, that he could eventually get a dog, but they needed the space for both her son and the dog to be able to play safely.

Niles moved to the Flathead from Seeley Lake three years ago to attend Flathead Valley Community College’s medical assistant program, and realized finding the kind of rental she wanted would be a much larger order than she anticipated.

“I started looking for places to rent, and that was absurd,” she said. “I just want a modest house with a fence so my son can have a dog.”

Rent was high, and options were sparse, even when she started working as a medical assistant. She and her son have lived in the same apartment for the last three years. But in a couple weeks, the small family will move into their newly renovated house south of town, where there is a fenced yard and plenty of space.

She knew she wanted to be a homeowner, but the traditional route was too expensive. Then she found the Community Land Trust program at Community Action Partnership of Northwest Montana (CAP).

Through that program, Niles was able to buy a house with little money down, and it would be renovated when she moved in. The program works doubly to provide affordable housing and to stabilize neighborhoods where certain houses have been in foreclosure for years.

Low-income families purchase the house, but the land stays in the land trust, keeping the costs low.

“Thank God for this program,” Niles said. “My mortgage is going to be only $40 to $50 more than my current rent.”

But Niles is just one of many people trying to find affordable housing in the Flathead. Last summer, the rental vacancy rate was below 2 percent, when the last decade saw an average of 4 or 5 percent. This year is shaping up similarly, according to Jim Kelley of Kelley Appraisal, and rent rates are likely to increase.

And for those families looking to purchase a house, the market is trending upward; the median house price in Kalispell in 2014 was $177,500, up 10 percent from 2013. Whitefish’s median price in 2014 was $287,500, a 17.3 percent increase from the prior year, and Columbia Falls sat at $175,600, up 14.8 percent from 2013.

The lack of affordable housing isn’t new, Marney McCleary, housing director for CAP, said, but there are more people who were put through the financial ringer during the recession.

They lost jobs or saw their credit score plummet or got divorced; regardless of how it happened, McCleary said more families and individuals applying for CAP housing programs are homeless or a step away.

“More people are applying for rental units without income,” she said.

There are few housing options between homeless shelters and assisted programs, such as those at CAP, she said, and those have long waitlists.

Section 8 is one of the most popular programs. Run through CAP, it’s financed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and administered by the Montana Housing Division. Through Section 8, very low-income families can receive rental assistance; these families pay a set amount toward rent and utilities, based on their income.

“Our Section 8 waitlist is four years long,” McCleary said.

Other housing programs at CAP include mutual self-help housing and the land trust program, though the mutual self-help program is not currently running.

However, due to the CAP program shutting down for the time being, Habitat for Humanity of the Flathead Valley was given the opportunity to purchase some of the Kalispell lots CAP was going to build on.

Erin Falcon, director at the local Habitat for Humanity program, said having more housing space in Kalispell is very important for her clientele, because most of the families or individuals seeking housing through Habitat are working in Kalispell.

“That’s where the jobs are,” Falcon said. “And land in Kalispell is not cheap.”

It’s not cheap in Whitefish either, she said, which is why for the past four years Habitat has been working with 16 families building houses in Columbia Falls, where land is more affordable.

But now, Habitat has its eyes set on five lots on the west side of Kalispell, which will provide five families with a 0 percent mortgage for 30 years.

“We’re going to start building in May,” Falcon said.

Habitat for Humanity builds about four houses a year, so the Kalispell project should take roughly a year and a half. Falcon said the organization has just started taking applications for the five houses, but she doesn’t doubt her team will have plenty to go through.

To qualify, a person or family can’t spend more than 30 percent of their income on their housing, and they can’t have more than 40 percent of their income going toward paying off debt, she said.

This leads to a specific subset of the population that usually makes too much money to qualify for Section 8 housing or food stamps, but they can’t find affordable housing.

Since Habitat doesn’t have a waitlist, Falcon said her staff tries to recommend other housing options to families who aren’t selected for the houses. But the list of places to send these people is almost non-existent.

“We don’t even have a list of places we can send the families, because a lot of them are Section 8 (housing),” she said. “There’s not any that fit in that range.”

Falcon echoed McCleary’s assertions that there aren’t enough tiers of housing available in the Flathead; someone at the homeless shelter wouldn’t likely qualify for a Habitat house, she said, and might not have a shot at getting a Section 8 apartment.

“There is some transitional housing, but not a lot,” Falcon said.

When she first moved into a CAP-owned apartment building, Dani Barker lived on the transitional side; the complex has 16 apartments are for permanent low-income housing and 16 are for people transitioning from homelessness.

Barker had lived in the same apartment complex when she was 18, and returned as a single mom a decade later. She lived in a one-bedroom apartment on the transitional side for two years, part of that time with her son, Jackson, who is now 18 months old.

Last week, Barker and her son moved to the permanent side of the complex, affording her an extra room and more space. The apartments have given Barker a sense of stability she hasn’t had in more than a decade.

“That’s the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere since high school,” she said.

Living at the complex has allowed her to maintain a job while taking care of her son, because the program has grant money to help out if a tenant who can’t make ends meet on the rent.

For example, Barker went into premature labor with her son, and missed a rent payment. Instead of being evicted, she was given leeway, and didn’t have to choose between a hospital stay or paying her rent.

“I look at all of this as a leg up,” Barker said. “I don’t intend to be here forever. And because of this whole program, I don’t think that I will be.”

By summer, Barker said she will start going to FVCC part time, so she can continue her job on campus as well. She hopes to be a full-time student by fall, studying to become a substance-abuse counselor.

“I would like to be in school while (Jackson) is still at home, and then start my career once he starts school,” Barker said.

Anyone interested in applying for the Habitat for Humanity Kalispell project should call 257-8800 for more information.

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