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Montana renters lose housing as national eviction rate soars

Mobile homes
Posted at 7:54 PM, Jun 19, 2023

BILLINGS — Eviction rates are at an all-time high in some parts of the country, and Montana renters are not immune to a slow spike in evictions post-pandemic.

In Montana, a person can be evicted in as little as three days, and that's the type of eviction notice Shelley Cooper got after falling behind on two months of lot rent at the Cherry Creek Mobile Home Park in Billings. Cooper's eviction notice came with a court summons.

“I took the receipts that I paid up to date when I answered my summons, so I paid it up to date before the court date even came about. Which I’m not understanding why we had to go to court anyway," said Cooper.

The inability to pay rent is driving evictions around the country—data tracked by The Eviction Lab at Princeton University.

“Nationwide, we've seen that from the cities and states that we track over half of them have returned to pre-pandemic levels of evictions. Most of them are above those levels," said Adam Chapnik, a researcher with The Eviction Lab. "We know that with the end of the federal and local moratorium now, that much of the money that was being used to keep evictions at bay is dried up. And with that, there has been a slow spike in the rate of evictions that we're seeing countrywide.”

Getting a real picture of evictions in Montana is difficult, Chapnik said, due to a lack of data collected by courts and other state agencies, as well as what Chapnick calls hidden evictions.

“We don't know how many individuals are actually experiencing that because of how the eviction data is collected," Chapnik said.

"Probably also a lot of the evictions are happening outside of the court because it's just easier. There’s probably less policy to require landlords to actually do it through a court."

Some Montana landlords, like Steven Galloway of Great Falls, say eviction isn't taken lightly from their end.

“Sometimes it's not even their fault," Galloway said. "Sometimes things happen in their lives and it uproots them but I still have to evict them because they either gotta pay their rent or they don't, you know. And there's so many ways people can get help today with opportunities."

Galloway is also a representative in the Montana Legislature and has been working to change the procedures around evictions. One of Galloway's bills targeting eviction law in the 2023 Montana legislative session was HB 282.

That bill was criticized because it changes the amount of time a tenant has to respond to an eviction filing in court from 10 days to five days, but only under specific circumstances. Those circumstances are violations of a statute in Montana law, which relates to tenants manufacturing dangerous drugs, operating a clandestine laboratory, gang activity, and unlawful possession of a firearm or explosive.

“A lot of times what ends up happening is all the good tenants move out because you can't get rid of one bad tenant. This just gives us a way when somebody doesn't want to play by the rules, they want to lock you out, not let you in...You need a way to get them removed from your premises," Galloway said. "The whole bill is about getting somebody out in a timely manner, and those codes don't apply to tenants who haven't paid their rent or has an unapproved pet."

HB 282 was signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte on May 22.

For tenants answering eviction notices in court, the proceedings can be difficult to navigate.

“I showed up. They did not," Cooper said of her eviction proceedings with Cherry Creek Mobile Home Park. "They decided to continue it, and they would send me a letter in the mail. I received the letter for the hearing on May 22 on the 24th, so I did not get the letter until after the fact.”

When she was served her 72-hour eviction notice, Cooper started the process of selling her mobile home.

While she had a hitch on the trailer, Cooper said she could not physically or financially move it and hoped she could find a buyer to take it off her hands.

Cooper was able to sell it a few hours before law enforcement arrived to ensure she had left the property by the end of the 72 hours.

Chapnik said The Eviction Lab is always looking to expand its findings, but even when the numbers are available, they don't paint a picture of the real reach of evictions.

"So even when there is a lack of data and even when we do have very good data it's important to keep in mind that the number of individuals experiencing housing insecurity is probably much, much higher than we're actually seeing.”