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The focus of the Montana housing conference is on the coming legislative session



Helena, Montana – This week’s conference in Helena is focusing on the need for affordable housing in Montana.

Attendees for the annual Montana Housing Partnership Conference total about 270. The event is being hosted in person for the first time since 2019 at this time.

Participants at the conference agree that it’s a great chance for folks working on housing issues all throughout the state to connect.

“I mean, anything that we’ve done in Helena to build housing, we’ve stolen from other people who have been doing things better than we have,” said Jacob Kuntz, executive director of Helena Area Habitat for Humanity. “And so we kind of treat that with that idea – that everybody’s got a piece of the puzzle and we bring that together at this conference every year to figure out how to make housing better for everybody.”

The conference is organized by Montana Housing, a division of the Montana Department of Commerce, and NeighborWorks Montana. The focus on housing difficulties in the state, according to Cheryl Cohen, executive director of Montana Housing, has increased awareness of this event as well.

“I think there’s definitely more interest, and we are also looking at a broader range of topics – so not just focused on affordable housing development specifically, but how does affordable housing intersect with economic development and job growth? How does it intersect with providing services and health care to our most vulnerable citizens?” she said.

This year, adjusting to the decisions made by the Montana Legislature during its session will be one of the major subjects. A number of housing-related laws were passed by the legislature, including House Bill 819, which allocates more than $200 million to a number of programs to aid in the creation of housing, as well as zoning and land use modifications targeted at improving availability.

“There were not dollars at the state level for housing, and now there are dollars, there’s policies,” Kuntz said. “All those policies, all those dollars are going to come with challenges that we have to work through, to try to figure out how do we access the people that need it the most. And that’s what this work is.”

HB 819 offers $50 million for “community reinvestment organizations” to help families locate affordable workforce housing as well as more than $100 million for infrastructure loans to support new housing projects. Additionally, $50 million was added to the Multifamily Coal Trust Homes Program.

Ashlie Wise, a native of Kalispell, is one of the presenters at the conference this year. She serves as chair of the state’s Youth Action Board, which contributes to the approval of initiatives that get federal funds to combat youth homelessness with a focus on hearing from individuals who have experienced housing instability.

“In order to know if these programs are actually working, we have to have the voices of lived experiences guiding the way that we’re piloting our programs – because they know best what works best for them,” Wise said. “They’ve already lived it, and they can tell you what resources within our resource spheres help them and what resources hinder them.”

Wise claimed that despite working three jobs, she had previously experienced home insecurity and was still dealing with it today.

Everyone in attendance agrees that it is beneficial to bring all of these stakeholders together again in person even if the conference has been taking place virtually throughout the pandemic.

“The other conferences I go to, I notice that there’s a lot of networking connections,” said Wise. “Within those networks we’re able to connect with others in our community, and connecting with others in our community is really the way to create those innovative solutions.”

A live event also gives attendees the chance to do things like take a bus tour of the Habitat for Humanity construction sites in the Helena Area.

“As good as the digital world is, it can’t really replace being with other people in a place and building relationships – being voice-to-voice and face-to-face,” said Kuntz. “So it’s great that we’re able to do this now in a safe way.”

Through Wednesday, the conference will be held at the Delta Colonial Hotel in Helena.

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