House votes down Gianforte’s housing proposal, advances ‘compromise’ affordable housing bill

By: - April 4, 2023 4:52 pm
The Montana state Capitol in Helena on Jan. 2, 2023.

The Montana state Capitol in Helena on Jan. 2, 2023. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)

The Montana House voted down one of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s major housing proposals in bipartisan fashion Monday and moved ahead with another affordable housing measure proposed by the House speaker and minority leader.

House Bill 825, sponsored by Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, referred to as the Montana Home Ownership Means Economic Security (HOMES) Act, was killed in a 30-69 vote, with votes in support from 22 Republicans and eight Democrats.

The bill would have put $200 million in general fund dollars toward a housing infrastructure trust fund account for local governments and developers to use for water, sewer, street and sidewalk infrastructure build-outs to try to increase the supply of housing across the state.

The projects would have been limited to developments that have a minimum of 10 units per acre.

The bill also contained a $25 million grant program section funded by earnings from the broader fund that would go toward local and tribal governments for planning and zoning purposes as part of the housing supply effort.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for the state,” Hopkins told House lawmakers on the floor Monday. “I can’t really say much more. It’s going to make a gigantic difference.”

The bill was initially tabled in the House Appropriations Committee last week but was amended to add a deed restriction “to preserve long-term affordability,” and it subsequently passed the committee in a 13-10 vote.

Gianforte, a Republican, has been calling on lawmakers to pass the bill to his desk and made another push for HB825 and several other housing bills a day after the measure advanced out of Appropriations.

Kaitlin Price, a spokesperson for the governor, said Tuesday his office was disappointed the House voted the bill down.

“Governor Gianforte has heard from Montanans across our state, and he shares their priority of increasing access to affordable workforce housing,” Price said in a statement. “The governor will continue to work with legislators to address the housing shortage and is optimistic we’ll get the innovative HOMES program across the finish line.”

But on the floor Monday, House lawmakers from both parties said they had multiple concerns about the bill from Hopkins, who protested that the chamber had earlier in the day passed other housing bills with big price tags.

Rep. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, rattled off a laundry list he said would be side effects of the growth, asking where the state would get the needed supply of teachers, emergency services and gas stations, and if there would be enough services and infrastructure to address the growing population.

“Let’s go back to the bumper sticker: Cows, not condos,” he said.

Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, wondered how interest rates from the funds would appreciate or depreciate and if the program would make the housing attainable in the first place, while Rep. Tanner Smith, R-Lakeside, said it was a bad time for the government to be investing in housing and infrastructure projects because of the cost of supplies.

“We all want to help with the housing crisis, but now’s not the time to do it with tax dollars,” Smith said. “There’s plenty of private money out there that’s willing to do this when the price comes down.”

Rep. Brad Barker, R-Roberts, said he would support the bill because the legislature would not be meeting again for two years and needed to at least move the bill forward to the Senate and take it to a conference committee to discuss alongside other housing bills.

Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, who leads the Appropriations Committee, voted in favor of the bill, though he acknowledged the “die has been cast for some time” as to its fate. He called it “an innovative approach” and said the concept will live on “whether the bill does or does not.”

House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, and Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, both spoke in opposition to the measure as well. Regier said he worried about out-of-state developers getting involved and said he didn’t believe it was “the best use” of surplus money, while Abbott said the measure contained nothing to ensure attainable housing for Montanans.

“I think it’s the wrong approach,” she said.

‘Compromise’ affordable housing bill advances

Earlier in the day, the House did advance what Regier and Abbott see as a tenable approach in House Bill 927, a compromise bill sponsored by Regier and cosponsored by Abbott. It puts $115 million toward the coal severance tax trust fund on top of the existing $15 million fund created in the 2019 session that goes toward developing and preserving low- and middle-income housing.

On the floor Monday, Regier called the measure one more of hundreds of different ideas on how to address Montana’s housing issues and said it was “one good way to use some of the surplus” to address the problem. The bill passed its second reading in an 82-18 vote.

On Tuesday, 14 Republicans defected and voted against the bill, which passed in a 67-32 vote. Originally the bill was coded to require three-quarters of the chamber to pass because it deals with appropriations and the coal trust fund, but it was miscoded, a House Republican spokesperson said, citing the legislative branch code commissioner.

Abbott said ahead of third reading she was excited for the bill to potentially be on the table for discussion as the Republican supermajority figures out what to pare out of its spending and what to keep over the final third of the session.

She said the same went for House Bill 546 from Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, which would allocate another $15 million to the housing fund in the coal tax trust fund for loans for low- and middle-income housing.

Democrat’s bill also aims to expand existing program tied to coal trust

Fern’s bill passed the House 65-33 in March and had its first hearing in the Senate on Tuesday in the Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee. There, it received no testimony in opposition and saw 11 people testify in favor, including chambers of commerce, nonprofit and housing association representatives, as well as a developer who received one of the initial loans from the program.

“This loan has made it possible for the residents to have a safe and affordable home, and without it, the project would have been completely stalled. Period,” said Beki Brandborg, whose project in Havre renovated an apartment complex serving 32 families, including seniors and people with disabilities, she said.

Other projects the initial $15 million have been pledged toward include development and renovation of housing in Belt, Cascade, Livingston, Helena and the Joliet/Laurel area, according to a fiscal note attached to the bill.

Melissa Shannon, a lobbyist for the Montana Housing Coalition, told the committee the coalition would love to see both Fern’s and Regier’s bills pass. She responded to a question from Sen. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, by saying the Board of Housing indicated it had the staff to work with even more money from the trust fund and would “support any influx of additional revenue.”

Fern cautioned in his closing that even if Regier’s bill passes during this session, when there is a surplus, the amounts will be spread out over several years and it would take the board more time to process the influx in loans. But he said he had a “terrific” bill for lawmakers to consider alongside others. The committee did not take action on the bill Tuesday.

While Abbott previously cautioned that she doesn’t believe Gianforte is fond of Regier’s bill to put $115 million in general fund dollars toward the housing fund, the governor said last week he is supporting several bills from Senate Republicans on housing, including bills to allow for multiplex housing in city codes, limitations on property tax increases, and changes to planning and zoning regulations.

“This is a bipartisan issue,” Gianforte said. “While we may disagree on other issues, many Montanans – regardless of party – believe we need to increase the supply of housing.”

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Blair Miller
Blair Miller

Blair Miller is a reporter based in Helena who primarily covers government, climate and courts. He's been a journalist for more than 12 years, previously based in Denver, Albuquerque and mid-Missouri.