Over the last few years, as home prices have risen across Montana, much attention has been paid to that phenomenon in places like Flathead and Gallatin counties. But even more remote communities have felt the pinch of rising home and rent prices since 2020, including in far northwest Montana.
Since the beginning of 2020, the median sales price of a home in Lincoln County has more than doubled, from $179,000 in January 2020 to $435,000 in May 2023, according to data from Montana Regional MLS. That increase is also impacting rent prices.
For years, communities like Libby, Lincoln’s county seat that has struggled with the decline of the local timber and mining industries — compounded by a massive federal cleanup of an asbestos mine — were flush with affordable housing but lacked a strong job market. That’s according to Cassidy Kipp, deputy director of Community Action Partnership of Northwest Montana, which helps people get out of poverty through rental assistance and home-buying education. It wasn’t unusual, then, for people to live in Lincoln County but commute to the Flathead (it’s about a 90-minute drive from Libby to Kalispell) for work. But that has changed in recent years.
Sean O’Neill, community service department director with Community Action Partnership, said that five years ago it was possible to find a one-bedroom rental in Libby for $400 to $600. Now that would set a renter back anywhere from $800 to $1,200.
“It’s alarming,” O’Neill said, adding that in some cases rents are so high they don’t qualify for government assistance, better known as a Section 8 voucher, that is administered by Community Action Partnership.
Another issue, Kipp added, is that rentals priced at what the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (which provides Section 8 funding) considers a fair market price often don’t qualify for the program because they’re too old or haven’t been upgraded. In hopes of addressing that, Community Action Partnership is working with local landlords to upgrade some properties.
“The current housing market is just putting more strain on the [rental market],” Kipp said. “Because of that, people are being squeezed out of the market.”
But perhaps the biggest effort to address Lincoln County’s housing shortage is the pending construction of a housing development in Libby, across the street from Flathead County Community College’s Lincoln County Campus. The development will include 24 units of varying types and sizes that will have rents set at 30%, 50% and 60% of the area’s median income.
Kipp said Community Action Partnership has worked with American Covenant Senior Housing Foundation to secure tax credits for construction and they hope to break ground on the project this summer. If everything goes according to plan, the duplexes will be ready for tenants by late summer or early fall of 2024.
Community Action Partnership also plans to establish an office within the new development so residents will have easier access to its services. Kipp said that the organization serves 13% of households in Lincoln County with various programs.
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