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'Reaching critical crisis:' Real estate experts forecast grim housing future in Montana

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Posted at 7:55 PM, Feb 15, 2023

BILLINGS – Billings real estate experts are calling the future of housing in Montana a mounting crisis.

It’s a bleak outlook if something isn’t done and soon, says Bob Leach, a long-time real-estate broker and property manager.

Leach is vocal about what’s happening around Montana and specifically in Billings. If you ask him what the future holds for housing, he doesn’t mince words.

“I estimate that 75 percent of people that could afford a house three years ago cannot buy a house today,” said Leach.

Leach has been studying the impacts of the housing markets for years. He recently took his findings to Gov. Greg Gianforte's housing task force – a group that’s been directed to make recommendations to lawmakers and state agencies to increase the affordability of housing.

He says his findings are placing Montana into a critical crisis.

“Because we are going to find a shortage of workers, people who stock grocery stores, police, fire,” said Leach. “If people are more unsettled because they can’t find a home, they are more likely to go somewhere where they can.”

One solution, he says, is to take the cost of land out of the equation. It’s something that could be achieved through a community land trust, said Leach.

“The city has talked about donating land. We’ve talked to the county commissioners on land that they might have for development and put it in a community land trust and make it permanently affordable,” he said.

Permanently affordable is the part that’s critical because many hopeful buyers who may have been optimistic at one time, are now questioning what that means exactly.

Back in December of 2022, Charles Westwood found himself browsing through house listings online, trying to assess what his family could afford.

“There’s not a lot in town to purchase,” he said at that time. “I’ve made six different offers.”

And at that point, not even one had been accepted. In fact, Westwood says he was outbid by a larger amount in each case.

Westwood and his wife were searching for a new home for over a year, hoping to start a family one day.

“The market hasn’t cooled off, from what I’ve seen so far,” he said.

Plenty of growth in Billings is happening in the county, according to Leach, where people from out of state with much bigger profits off a previous sale can afford to build on large lots with high square footage.

But for some like Westwood, that’s not possible.

“Most of the people who are buying new houses are building them out on the West End. But it’s gotten so expensive out there,” said Westwood.

The part that becomes critical is the impact the affordable housing crisis has on our essential workers, according to Steve Simonson with the Billings Association of Realtors.

“Prices have gone up about 20 to 30 percent in the last two years,” said Simonson.

And at a time when wages have only increased by a fraction of that.

“They are not vested in our community if they can’t buy a home,” said Simonson. “We need to find some innovative solutions, because this problem, we are just on the front end of this, this is not going to go away anytime soon.”