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New downtown housing developments help ease Billings housing shortage

Old Town Flats in the development phase
Posted at 4:57 PM, Apr 11, 2024

BILLINGS — Billings residents are used to new housing projects popping up across the West End, but it's a new phenomenon downtown. Old Town Flats, a new mixed-use building on First Avenue North, is set to open this summer with several others in the works. It's the first new residential build in downtown in years, hinting at a growing city.

While this new development will help meet demand, it's a drop in the bucket to meet the area's full need for housing.

A 2017 study conducted by Big Sky Economic Development found that between Downtown Billings and the East Billings Urban Renewal District, 200 to 400 units per year would be needed to meet the growing need for housing. Today, housing in those areas is nearly 100% claimed.

"It is a continuing challenge,” said Mehmet Casey, the development director for the Downtown Billings Alliance (DBA), on Tuesday.

Mehmet Casey
Mehmet Casey

Affordability and availability are two major factors when it comes to finding housing solutions.

"We’ve actually been looking for the last two years and we’ve been stuck in this one,” said Ashley Blythe, a renter in the downtown area, on Thursday. "We’re currently in a house with three bedrooms, $900 a month. Which is really hard to beat."

Ashley Blythe
Ashley Blythe

With more than 123,000 people living in Billings, the problem is only expected to get worse.

"We currently live in an environment where housing is in a bit of a crisis," said Casey. "We don't have as many units available to address the demand."

Casey said the downtown building owners who attract the most renters are those who are getting creative.

"We have a couple of properties in the downtown area that range between 80 to 98 to 100% filled," Casey said. "The reason for that is those property owners have been working closely with their tenants, to build the space to meet their needs."

But Casey said many buildings have lower occupancy rates, though the DBA couldn't provide MTN News with exact unit availability.

Something else is happening that hasn't in years—new projects.

According to Big Sky Economic Development, there is more than $100 million in long-term housing developments coming to the downtown area, including Old Town Flats.

Old Town Flats in the development phase
Old Town Flats in the development phase

"Part of it is to create that option for residents," said Casey.

In the early 2000s, there were just 11 apartment buildings built in the downtown area, according to Big Sky Economic Development.

"This is one of those new construction projects that haven't happened in the downtown area in decades, especially when we're talking about residential developments," Casey said. "We've had a few other commercial activities that are new construction, but residential nature, everything in the downtown area that exists in the residential world has been an existing building."

Casey said the Old Town Flats project, currently being developed at 2316 and 2318 First Ave. N., is just the start.

Old Town Flats under construction
Old Town Flats under construction

The old YesterYears building, located at 116 N. 29th St., will soon be transformed into the 12-story Futurity Tower, which will have a mix of residential units and commercial space.

"This is, by the way, as a phase one of the project. There's a phase two right behind it that will essentially replicate a second tower. You mentioned the Futurity Tower not too long ago. There was also a project that went before city council for a new hotel. While that's not housing, that's another new construction, new development,” Casey said.

Bringing more options downtown—something those searching for housing are grateful to hear.

The Blythe family biking
The Blythe family biking

"Honestly, it’s a lot more relieving to know that that’s going to be more out there to look for," Blythe said. "We’re ecstatic that there’s going to be something we can actually look into. Because we’ve felt stuck for years. We just don’t think that we’re going to get out of this house."

And hopefully, projects like Old Town Flats will get the ball rolling.

"I think we are now at that cusp with that momentum that we've been hoping for,” Casey said.

To learn more about Old Town Flats, click here.