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Help wanted, housing needed

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“Short staffed. It’s the new pandemic,” reads a sign at an Ennis restaurant. “We can’t hire employees,” business owners said repeatedly during a recent listening session at the Shovel & Spoon Restaurant in Sheridan. Business folks from Ennis, Sheridan, and Twin Bridges took part. Madison County Democrats and the Montana Democratic Party sponsored the event. Now that our world is opening up from the COVID pandemic, Main Street businesses can’t meet the demand. “During the pandemic, it was panic buying, now it’s panic tourism,” said one. Ordinarily, ‘panic tourism’ would be a great thing for a business’s bottom line, but instead, it’s overwhelming.

Businesses get job applicants, alright, many from out of state, but there’s no affordable place to live, so they turn down the jobs. One business had to buy property to house her employees, or else her family grocery would go under. 

Another sign I saw said, “Help wanted, starting $15/hour, employee benefits.” As a legislator who has sponsored living wage bills for four legislative sessions, my first reaction to worker shortage has been to pay folks more. And in many cases, that’s true, but not all. Most of the small businesses we talked with pay nearly double or more than double minimum wage, some offer benefits. Folks want to work, and they need a place to live, to work. 

During the 2021 Legislative Session, Conservative Republicans sponsored a bill to prohibit local governments from requiring affordable housing known as ‘inclusionary zoning.’ You read it right — prohibit affordable housing. 

The legislature did pass a good, bipartisan, tax credit bill for developers to build workforce housing. Sadly, our right wing Governor Greg Gianforte vetoed it, saying in his veto letter the state already gets federal tax credits and Section 8 funding. He failed to mention the long waiting list for Section 8 housing. We need state government to step up for Montanans. That’s the role of government. The governor praised bad land-use bills, passed by Republicans, that would ease regulation costs for developers. I don’t want affordable housing that risks public health and safety. As I write this, tragic news is breaking about the condo building collapse in Florida. Years of structural damage and officially ignored engineering recommendations look like the cause. Regulations protect people. 

Finally, the governor said affordable housing credits would pose an unanticipated risk to fiscal stability. Listen friends — our state faces a much greater fiscal threat in stifled small businesses and lack of worker housing. This, when Republican tax bills gave the super wealthy and big, out of state corporations tax treats that reduce our state revenues by $100 million each biennium. One bill alone gives 80 percent of the tax cut to the top 20 percent of Montanans. 

I joined a full house of customers for lunch at the Shovel & Spoon. It was yummy. The owner said she could be open more hours and grow her business if she could get staff. Montana, we’re losing business that could be thriving because we don’t have workforce housing. Let’s build it so we can get back to business. Only when we do, will Montana truly be open for business. 

(Mary Ann Dunwell is a fourth term, Democratic state legislator, serving Montana’s House District 84 Helena/East Helena.)


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