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Almost the last bill to pass

by Dave Fern
| May 10, 2023 1:00 AM

It was a late afternoon, on May 2, the 87th day of the Montana Legislature. In a surprise move the Senate had sine die’d, meaning they had completed their business for the session without any future date for resumption. We were the lone body to get the business done including the Senate's more generous budget. One of the very last bills for the House was HB 819, a housing bill that had come over from Senate, amended 17 times through the process including a final time within a conference committee. With the Senate done, there was no reverting back by rejecting the committee’s amendments. My bill, HB 546, was to increase borrowing authority from the Coal Trust’s Permanent Fund for affordable multi-family housing and was one of the three bills integrated into this one big bill. It allowed me to sit with the other sponsors and several members of the House Appropriations Committee, the Chairman of Senate Finance and Claims, and staff, to craft a final bill. To my surprise our working group informed me of their interest in increasing my request from $15 million of additional funding to $50 million dollars; combined with the nearly used $15 million from my original bill in 2019, the new HB 546 would yield a $65 million revolving fund for low-interest loans. Wow, you can imagine my excitement!

The original HB 819 still included an innovative equity-sharing program that uses $50 million of or one time only surplus funds with matching contributions from local sources to create a $100 million distribution to regionalized Community Reinvestment Organizations or CROs. The CROs will also be able to use large employers such as hospitals to increase regional pools. The CROs will be revolving funds with eligible participants able to have up to 30% of their mortgages bought down so they are eligible for a home purchase. A deed restriction applies to the increase of equity and sale before maturation of the mortgage will send the increased equity beyond the deed restriction back to the revolving fund for future buy-downs.

The third portion of this bill is a partially resurrected bill from the governor’s office, the Montana Infrastructure Bill that allocates $106 million to a revolving fund for the construction of infrastructure, such as sidewalks, water and sewer lines, and demolition costs. Eligible recipients for below-market loans must build dense housing, no less than 10 units per acre, and provide workforce-attainable housing. Administrative rules, public meetings convened subsequent to the signing of the bill will determine definitions such as “workforce attainable housing” and procedures to implement the bill.

There will be additional allocations of funding that target communities of less than 15,000 residents, housing state facilities such as prisons and hospitals, where there is a chronic employment and housing shortage.

What’s missing from HB 819? In future years I am hopeful we can fund a state tax credit system that allows us to access additional federal funds for housing targeted for under 50% AMI (average median household income). In the 2021 session, the governor vetoed such a bill. In this session, HB 829, a tax credit bill that addressed the objections of the veto, failed to get out of House Appropriations. I am also hopeful that we can establish a Housing Trust, allowing interest earning to be used for grants for eligible projects and land purchases for workforce housing. HB 524, a housing trust bill was tabled in committee. Two bills I sponsored, HB 407 would have provided property tax abatement for workforce housing and after clearing the House floor failed to get out of Appropriations, and HB 370 would have allowed an additional 1% to the resort tax to be allocated to housing.

In the 2017 session, I passed a bill defining housing land trusts to provide clarity to title companies and the banking industry. That subject caused long debate, questioning the need for affordable housing in the state. Can you imagine debating such an issue to a call for cloture after 30 minutes of discussion on the House floor? Times have rapidly changed and I’m relieved that most legislators realize there is a housing shortage and affordability affects many Montanans. Though we could have done more with our historic surplus to address housing issues, the 2023 legislature has passed a meaningful bipartisan housing bill that established a foundation that we can build upon. I am proud to have been part of the solution.

Dave Fern, HD 5, Whitefish