Local agencies looking at ways to create affordable housing, rentals


Several local organizations are partnering to study the housing market and plan strategically for growth and affordable housing.

The Great Falls Development Authority, NeighborWorks Great Falls and the Great Falls Association of REALTORS are partnering to share the cost of the study.

The request for proposals for the study has not yet been released.

City receives $1 million for affordable housing grants

Brett Doney, GFDA director, told The Electric that the study will look at identifying development opportunities to produce more rentals and housing at every price point.

Some of that will require subsidized programs and some will be market driven, he said, but they’re particularly interested in the under $300,000 market for home ownership.

He said GFDA is primarily focused on housing in the $175,000 to $275,000 range while NWGF looks at that range and lower, some of which requires financial support from a variety of sources.

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Doney said he’s hoping that the study will show that there are opportunities in the market and then use that to interest developers into doing more production at scale, since that has more impact and often lowers per unit costs for developers.

“We’re really focused on the middle of the market, what we call workforce housing, which will require developers to do sizable project to bring down costs to renters,” Doney said.

The last housing market analysis was commissioned by the City of Great Falls and completed in 2015.

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The study being planned by GFDA and partners will look at supply and demand, consider current production levels, the market and current projects in various stages of pre-development such as the Milwaukee Station project, Doney said.

There’s interest in continuing infill development, which can be more cost effective in the city, Doney said, but much of housing development depends on materials and the construction market, “which is hard to predict.”

Sherrie Arrey, NeighborWorks Great Falls director, told The Electric that a number of locals in the middle income bracket can’t move up into higher cost housing right now, which isn’t freeing up many of the lower cost homes for those looking for their first house or in the lower income brackets.

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She said the study will help her agency determine how they can best fit into the big picture to encourage housing development in the community.

Arrey said that as the city is figuring out how to use the nearly $30 million in COVID relief funds that it has been allocated, she hopes that they’ll use some for housing and be strategic in planning for future growth.

“What is the partnership we can work with the city on to get the best opportunity for our community to invest in themselves,” Arrey said.

When residents are able to purchase a home, it helps the individual, employers, community and local economy, she said.

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The community can lose young professionals and others in the workforce if they can’t find good, affordable housing, she said.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, a significant number of people have been moving into various areas of Montana, including Great Falls but to a lesser extent.

“If we want to take advantage of the Montana boom, how do we position ourselves in a way that we’re going in a way that people can afford, so we’re not like Bozeman where many people can’t afford housing,” she said. “We hope people start looking at Great Falls and saying this is a better option, but housing has to be a part of the equation.”

There are a number of external factors such as material costs, labor and supply chain delays that will impact the cost of housing development, she said, but they’re also looking at options to develop different types of housing at all price levels, which will take “creative thinking and collaboration.”

“NeighborWorks Great Falls is taking this seriously and trying to develop plans to present to the city,” Arrey said.

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During a May work session with the City Commission, Arrey and Katie Batterbee of NWGF discussed the local housing situation with commissioners.

Batterbee said that Cascade County is relatively affordable compared to the U.S. and the rest of the state for home buying, but the rental market has the county up among the larger communities in Montana.

“More apartments are the answer,” but that requires thought on what kind of apartments are affordable, and the community needs market rate, modest and affordable units, Batterbee said.

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Arrey said that they’re looking at how to continue the owner built program as costs rise. NWGF was building 10-12 homes annually with some funding through the Community Development Block Grant program, and mixed those with HOME Funds, another federal housing program, but that funding support was cut.

There are a number of programs that can help people purchase a house or find rental housing, but there are still barriers.

Batterbee told commissioners that things to consider include the aging housing stock, homes with failing foundations that often turn into subpar rental properties and soil conditions particularly in lower south/northside neighborhoods create disinterest in investment.

Housing costs are also increasing, she said, and at higher rates than wages.

She said the median home sale price in 2020 was $215,000 and going up. The median home price in Great Falls increased more than 17 percent from 2010 to 2018, she said.

During the meeting, Arrey told commissioners to use the available federal funds through CDBG, HOME and COVID relief funds to help create housing affordability for families in the “missing middle” and be impactful.

“We have such a wonderful opportunity right now,” she said, to look at the pandemic crisis and find bright solutions.

Commissioner Rick Tryon told Arrey and Batterbee that they should come up with specific recommendations and come back to the commission.

“I look to you to lead this and come to us with ideas and recommendations,” he said.

Arrey told The Electric that they do have specific ideas for creating housing and those ideas include looking at the downtown area with its older housing stock and finding ways to improve it so that it lasts another 100 years or do infill development.

She said they’re using their data research to pinpoint blocks and areas that are blighted or need revitalization and then ask the city to use HOME funds or other funding programs to target those areas that have been abandoned or “need some love.”