Study highlights Flathead County’s lack of affordable housing

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Housing-cost burdens are considerably higher in Flathead County compared to averages across the state of Montana, according to a study released by the nonprofit Montana Budget and Policy Center Tuesday.

The center’s housing affordability study, which it has published online in the form of an interactive map, provides a county-by-county breakdown of Montana’s housing crisis by analyzing seven indicators of housing affordability: percent of households that rent, poverty rate for renter households, fair-market rent for a two-bedroom rental, rental amount considered affordable for households living below poverty, number of work hours needed to afford fair-market rent, supply of affordable rental units and households living below poverty with high rental-cost burden.

The study demonstrates that there is no county in Montana where a minimum wage worker can afford a rental home at fair-market rent.

According to the report, 46 percent of all renters in Montana are “cost burdened,” which means that more than 30 percent of their household income goes toward housing costs.

“Affordability is a major obstacle to housing security and quality of life, and a growing number of Montanans are paying levels of rent that severely strain the household budget,” said Heather O’Loughlin, co-director of the Montana Budget and Policy Center. “This tool presents a snapshot of housing needs across the state and will help community members, advocates and policymakers advance policy solutions that ensure every Montanan has a home.”

In Flathead County, the study demonstrates what many housing advocates and social-service providers have repeatedly warned: demand for affordable housing far outstrips supply. According to the study’s Flathead County information sheet, 31.7 percent of renter households — which in total form 29 percent of all households in the county, population 94,696 — are living in poverty, meaning total income was less than $20,000 between the years 2012 and 2016.

This number was slightly below the Montana state average of 32.8 percent of renter households living in poverty.

However, Flathead County’s affordable-housing supply falls behind an already insufficient state average. Only 14 percent of rentals in Flathead are affordable for those living below the poverty line, compared to 17 percent statewide.

Thus, like every other county in the state, Flathead County’s housing prices far outpace many families’ ability to pay them, leaving many residents on waiting lists, in a shelter or without a place to stay.

An affordable rent for families making at or slightly above minimum wage — a rent that consumes less than 30 percent of household income — is $446 per month in Flathead County. Yet most rentals rate far higher than that; a minimum-wage worker in the county would need to work 71 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom rental at the current fair-market rate of $747 per month.

As a result, the vast majority of households living in poverty in the Flathead are cost burdened — 85.5 percent of poverty-level households in the county are paying more than 30 percent of their income to rent and utilities, which is more than 10 points higher than the state average of 73.9 percent.

“Affordability is a major obstacle to housing security and quality of life, and a growing number of Montanans are paying levels of rent that severely strain the household budget,” said the study’s homepage, which includes links to data on other counties across the state.

On its fact sheets, the Montana Budget and Policy Center advocates that “having a place to call home is at the center of our lives and the foundation of our communities. Yet many families across Montana face unaffordable levels of rent and struggle to make ends meet. Montana should invest in policy solutions that ensure every Montanan has a home.”

For more information on the study and to view the interactive maps, visit https://montanabudget.org/interactive-housing-map.

Reporter Adrian Horton can be reached at ahorton@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4439.

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