The Rent is Too High

What, really, is considered affordable for a low-income resident?

By Kellyn Brown

As more and denser developments are approved and break ground, some aimed specifically at affordable housing and others to meet demand for more rentals as our population continues to grow, it’s worth looking at what, really, is considered affordable for a low-income resident.

To that end, the Montana Budget and Policy Center (MBPC), a research and analysis nonprofit, released a wide-ranging report broken down by the state’s counties that aims to answer that question. And the results show the difficulty of paying rent or affording a home across the state, especially in more urban areas.

In Flathead County, for example, the average monthly cost of a two-bedroom rental in 2017 was $747, below the statewide average of $775, but far more than what is considered affordable for a low-income family, which is $446.

Traditionally, one should only pay up to 30 percent of his or her income on housing, although that burden has continued to increase across the county. For those locally at or below the poverty line, that’s a near impossibility.

In Flathead, 85.5 percent of low-income renters are spending more than 30 percent of their paychecks on rent and utilities. It’s even worse elsewhere. That number is 88.1 percent in Gallatin and 92.8 percent in Missoula.

And these are not isolated cases of a few locals living with the burden of trying to make ends meet every month — a full 29 percent of households are renters in the county and, of those, 31.7 percent are living in poverty, according to MBPC.

“A minimum wage worker in Flathead County needs to work 71 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom home at fair market rent,” the report states.

The struggle to provide affordable housing to local residents is not new. But that struggle is compounded by the area’s population growth. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only two places of similar size saw their populations grow more than the Kalispell area between 2016 and 2017 when we added 2,307 people. First among every Micropolitan Statistical Area in the country was another Montana area: Bozeman, which gained 3,748. Jefferson, Georgia, was second with 2,541.

Demand is still outweighing supply in local housing, but it is especially lopsided on the more affordable end of the market. Even those willing and eager to pay more of their income toward a rental — say, 40 or 50 percent for an apartment lease that costs about $800 a month — there is not enough inventory.

There are plenty of developments expected to come on line in the coming months and years. The Kalispell City Council earlier this year approved a 324-unit apartment complex on the west side of the city. In Whitefish, where housing is even more expensive, the council there approved a 58-unit “100-percent affordable, single-family home” subdivision, which means every home must be a primary residence for a local worker and the resale costs are set by the local housing authority.

According to MBPC, more needs to be done, especially on the state level: “Despite the growing need for affordable housing, Montana does not spend any state money on housing assistance.”

That is unlikely to change in the short term, especially with the recent state budget cuts — leaving cities and counties to come up with ways to house its workforce or risk squeezing out an already tight labor market. Municipalities in the Flathead have already begun addressing the issue, but the numbers are daunting.

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