What's Your Beef? A Housing Needs Assessment is Pointless

Capitalism and Free Market are great things – usually. When things go wrong in markets, as they typically do, protections are put into place to protect the market and those who participate in it legally.

However, when the market gets to a greedy and top-heavy point, like Bozeman’s current rental market, PEOPLE NEED PROTECTION!

You can go anywhere in Bozeman and mention rental rates or housing and people will turn a spectrum of red- to purple-faced with perhaps blue air to go along with that. There is ABSOLUTELY ZERO PROTECTION for the people actually paying the rents here in Bozeman.

One of the things Montanan’s pride themselves on is our quality of life, good schools, good neighbors (usually), great towns, good infrastructure, recreational opportunities, good friends and most of our families. All of that together equals our quality of life; however, when we become more worried about how to pay rent than enjoying our great town and mountains, EVERYONE LOSES their quality of life – Everyone, including the property owners whose renters pay their property taxes.
Four short years ago, we were given candidates who promised to do something about housing and affordable housing and rental rates, and frankly very little has been done. The idea of keep kicking the can down the road until someone comes up with an idea is getting old fast!!! Most of you, if you’re local, do not recall San Jose when the Rent Strikes hit in the 80s, but San Jose hit the very same crossroads we are at now.

This is costing Bozeman dearly in so far as talented individuals leaving due to affordability, and businesses closing down now as a result of rents, which have increased nearly $600 per unit per year in the last four years.

We are all truly tired of being fed solutions that yield ZERO results. For example, I strongly feel that the City Manager – of all people – should have their housing stipend of $2,000 a month taken away. Here is why: A City Manager should be faced with the harshness of the Bozeman market that every other person has to face. The City Manager should be able to relate to every facet of this community, INCLUDING RENTERS!!

Let’s move ahead a bit to the Citizens Housing Board you can catch up on through Bozeman.net. To be frank, I don’t know a single renter who can attend a meeting at 8:00 a.m. on Wednesdays because most are trying to earn a living in order to enjoy Bozeman and everything it has to offer, even at its steep cost of living. However, tying rates and adjustments for renters to Median Income is so completely asinine since most – 66.3% --- DO NOT EARN MEDIAN INCOME.

So, then we enter the realm of low income housing, which is designated for specific income brackets and generally those units are well governed and audited section 8, low income and income based units.

Then we come to a pocket in the Bozeman housing market where 53% of all renters are – between the highest wrung of income based and the lowest wrung of median income averaged housing and market rate rentals.

This IS the problem that the current City Comission has failed to address. Rent control has shown itself to be a failed policy. In larger cities where there is a larger and more vocal group in this economic pocket, many cities have instituted a city-wide sliding scale as well as a two-year rent freeze in order to develop specific solutions for their communities. Slate Magazine did an excellent article on this three years ago.

Struggling cities made a provision so renters in this economic pocket do not pay over 32% of their total household income in rents. Based on studies done in similar towns in Washington and Oregon, this has shown to be very effective because it gets the most dollars for the owner – which let’s be honest the property owner does not pay property taxes the renters do – ALWAYS. While still allowing a rapidly growing city to adapt to the current market changes – simply put THIS IS THE PROTECTIONS NEEDED FOR RENTERS RIGHT NOW IN BOZEMAN.

Additionally, by having this sliding scale, it still allows for saving to buy a home as well as upward mobility as opportunities happen to the renters themselves. Whether it be marriage, or roommates, or promotion at work or a new job, whatever the use of a sliding scale instead of rent control helps all parties involved.
Another solution has been the use of housing Co-Op funds. In Bozeman, these are available through Rural Development. One person said that Co-Op trailer parks were a way to go, and that is true, but if tenants united in a group had the opportunity to also buy some older industrial locations and locations closer to downtown or on one or more bus routes, it would be so beneficial to some folks who may never have enough to ever truly own a home, but perhaps owning a space and being part of a Co-Op is an option for them.

We do have to balance that against the clear one-sided vision of one company being given every opportunity known to also take over the same industrial locations and charge $1450 a MONTH FOR A STUDIO – yes, I double checked the price at 5 West Mendenhall on that.

The City Commission AT EVERY MEETING should also hear from verified sources such as Zumper, Zillow, and property management firms the prices – NOT AVERAGE PRICE or an averaged per bedroom price– the unvarnished prices of a Studio Low to High, One Bedroom Low to High, 2 Bedroom Low to High and 3 Bedroom Low to High. This report should be heard at every meeting because a City Commission is only as good as the information it is given. If we allow this report to not be heard or to be averaged or glossed in some way, the Commissioners cannot do the job they were elected to, which is represent the PEOPLE of BOZEMAN and guide its future.

Ultimately, I think our City Commission needs to start NOW instituting some of the protections mentioned for renters before we lose our greatest asset by allowing these prices to chase away our population growth and best and brightest people.
As far as our Housing Needs Assessment, I find this to be an exercise that will only yield more people living in boxes that always have hidden fees. Just because folks are not the richest does not mean they want to live stacked up in shoe boxes, tiny homes, or even container homes, or even the possibility of an organization such as Habitat for Humanity or some other business in conjunction with Rural Development creating a Brick A Wood mill here. These are better known as tiny wooden Lego homes. There is nothing saying they have to be tiny though they can be comfortable and we clearly have the resources in our forests to do it these wooden Lego homes as they are described were designed in Northern Canada to withstand the harshest of winters, and we can train people who may not otherwise have this opportunity to help manufacture and construct these homes which usually go up in one day.
It seems to me that a neighborhood could be formed simply by volunteers wanting to build a neighborhood and be a part of one and that they can provide the labor and divide their lots seamlessly to work in conjunction with a Brick A Wood Development.

There is also something that can be done NOW: Direct the City Attorney to ask the Attorney General for a clarifying opinion regarding the 4% medical marijuana dispensary tax; the language is gray on whether local government at this moment has the power to charge it. It turns out that if they do, that 4% can go along way towards future housing projects that are in the pocket group between income based and market rate and ease the burden for those renters. Additionally, if local government is allowed to charge that 4% dispensary tax, the interest stream (and the City Manager’s housing stipend) can be dedicated to help offset property tax for public employees such as police, fire and teachers, veterans; we want them to live locally and not commute everyday contributing even more to global warming.
These solutions exist RIGHT HERE AND NOW and can be put into action. The idea of gathering more information for a housing needs assessment is pointless!

We all are hurting too much from the lack of a definition of affordable housing, and we all know the need is critical mass at this point. The Bozeman City Commission need only have the political will and spine to relieve such financial pain and angst.
The only question that remains … Will this fall on the deaf ears of the City Commission? 
Michelle Pacot is a 5th generation Gallatin Valley resident her adult children are the 6th generation.