Butte not that affordable for low-income families, according to data

Montana Standard

Butte often gets touted as an affordable place to live when compared to Montana’s largest communities, but for a segment of Butte’s population, affordable housing remains out of reach.

That’s according to data released Thursday by a Montana nonprofit, which shows that 84 percent of low-income renting families in Silver Bow County are “cost burdened,” spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Statewide, the rate is 74 percent.

What’s more, 54 percent of renter households in Butte-Silver Bow live in poverty, with annual incomes below $20,000. That’s the second highest poverty rate among renters in the state. The top spot goes to Anaconda-Deer Lodge County, with nearly 56 percent of its renting households living in poverty.

The organization behind the data is the Montana Budget and Policy Center, a Helena-based nonprofit that specializes in research and analysis on issues affecting low- and moderate-income Montanans.

According to the organization, low-income families in Silver Bow are not alone when it comes to access to affordable housing.

In fact, the group found that there is not a single county in Montana where a minimum-wage worker can afford a rental home at fair market rent. Montanans making minimum wage need to work 73 hours to afford a two-bedroom unit in their local markets. In Silver Bow, the same worker needs to work 67 hours. In Deer Lodge, minimum-wage workers need to put in 64 hours.

Not surprisingly, the report shows that low-income families living in some of Montana’s largest communities have the most trouble making ends meet.

Butte-Silver Bow ranks 15th in the housing cost burden metric among low-income renters, but taking the top two spots are Missoula County and Carbon County, where 92 and 95 percent of renting low-income households are considered cost-burdened.

Coming in at number seven is Gallatin County, where the rate is 88 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 Heather O’Loughlin, co-director of the Montana Budget and Policy Center, in a news release.

Margie Seccomb, executive director of Action Inc., a Butte-based organization that provides low-income assistance to individuals in a number of counties in Southwest Montana, and Barbara Miller, co-founder and executive director of Butte’s National Affordable Housing Network, both noted that stable housing has implications for overall quality of life.

According to the two local advocates and the Montana Budget and Policy Center, several studies have shown that housing is correlated to things like health, a child’s ability to learn and overall economic stability.

What’s more, Seccomb said, when families can’t afford housing that puts more pressure on service providers, and it can be more costly for counties and non-profits in the long term when families who cannot afford rent become homeless.

Because of this, Seccomb said, Action Inc. practices a “housing first” policy, meaning that the organization prioritizes finding housing for families rather than relying on shelters. To this end, the organization provides clients with Housing Choice Vouchers, also known as Section 8 vouchers, emergency rent assistance and subsidized housing for seniors and families.

The Public Housing Authority of Butte also connects low-income individuals with subsidized housing. The organization’s Executive Director Revonda Stordahl could not be immediately reached for comment by press time Thursday.

Seccomb said she wasn’t surprised by the Montana Budget and Policy Center’s numbers.

Action Inc. keeps track of the local housing cost burden through periodic needs assessments.

According to the most recent assessment, which drew from data from 2015, 52 percent of all renters, not just low-income renters, in the organization’s service area pay 30 percent or more of their income on housing. The rate is 16.8 percent for homeowners.

When asked what it would take to make housing more affordable in Butte and its surrounding communities, Seccomb said the community needs more permanent, supportive housing, noting that the there is a waitlist of 457 for the Housing Choice Vouchers that Action Inc. offers.

“I don’t think there are easy answers,” said Miller when asked how to tackle affordable housing in Butte. However, she noted that it would take a community-wide effort to make sure all residents have roofs over their heads.

That’s a lofty goal, but Miller said Housing shouldn’t be an award, “it should be a right.”

Seccomb agreed.

“Every person in this country should have decent affordable housing,” she said.