Bozeman’s largest urban encampment is in the area near South 19th Avenue and Rawhide Ridge Road. More than 25 trailers, campers and other vehicles are typically parked there. Credit: Matt Standal / MTFP

Members of the Bozeman Tenants United gathered in a circle outside city hall last week, clapping and congratulating each other for what some might call an act of grassroots community organization, others a type of political subversion.

“We managed to delay the urban camping vote!” was part of the group’s rallying cry, shouted by organizers on the evening of Aug. 8, under the dim lights near the empty parking lot and gurgling Bozeman Creek.

Moments earlier, the city commission shelved a vote to restrict so-called “urban camping” in the city after the tenants group worked to delay the meeting, which also focused on what to do about short-term rentals in Bozeman, including those listed on the popular websites Airbnb and Vrbo.

Members of the tenants group packed the commission chambers, their trademark yellow T-shirts featuring slogans like “House the People,” and “Safe, Dignified, Truly Affordable Housing for All.” 

So many attendees showed up for the discussion that a Bozeman fire inspector was called to enforce the room’s 104-person capacity. Those who weren’t able to get inside spilled into the hallway and watched a video feed in the lobby.

Members of Bozeman Tenants United packed city hall for last week’s meeting focused on affordable housing and the homeless. So many attended that a Bozeman fire inspector was called to enforce the room’s 104-person capacity. Credit: Matt Standal / MTFP

After hearing public comment on both sides of the contentious short-term rental issue, commissioners instructed city staff to draft rules banning standalone short-term rentals, where the owner does not live on site. Increasing licensing fees, tightening ownership requirements, and ticketing the city’s estimated 305 illegal short-term rentals could also be part of a future ordinance.

The discussion marked a turning point for Bozeman Tenants United organizer Ben Finegan, who told Montana Free Press that his group won a two-pronged victory by pressing the city commission to restrict short-term rentals, while also actively delaying the vote on urban camping.

“It’s the biggest step in our campaign,” Finegan said, adding that he believed his group’s ongoing work with the city, including gathering more than 1,300 signatures in support of banning short-term rentals, got the issue in front of the commission.

When asked about the group’s work to postpone the vote on urban camping restrictions, Finegan said it was a “rapid-response movement.”

According to city documents, the proposed ordinance would have created a legal framework for camping on streets in Bozeman, including a five-day limit on any one street, restricting camping near residences, businesses, schools, parks and daycares, and creating sanitary and personal property requirements. Violations would have been met with a $100 fine. 

“Essentially we wanted to try and filibuster and try to delay the vote,” Finegan said, adding that he believed the city’s draft ordinance would have made it nearly impossible to camp anywhere in Bozeman, thus criminalizing residents who live in their vehicles due to the city’s high housing costs.

For Finegan, a Bozeman native, the experience of housing insecurity is all-too-real. 

Compelled to move home from college during the pandemic, Finegan said he quickly realized how bad the housing situation had become in Montana. He said his parents were newly divorced, and climbing rental rates forced his dad to live in a camper while his mom had to take a second job and was eventually driven out of state by the lack of affordable housing.

“We couldn’t let this thing get voted on the way it is,” said Finegan, describing the proposed ordinance as “not democratic” and too rushed for adequate public comment.

To that effect, 18 members of Bozeman Tenants United took to the microphone at last week’s meeting, giving as much public comment as was allowed by Mayor Cyndy Andrus, who limited each speaker to two minutes. A variety of other speakers, including short-term rental owners and even a corporate representative from Airbnb addressed the commission as well. 

A person who has lived in a van on Rawhide Ridge Road near Winco Foods for about four months said people there are often harassed. Credit: Matt Standal / MTFP

Finegan said volunteers from his organization gave rides to the homeless people who showed up for the evening’s discussion, provided childcare for young families in attendance, and distributed pizzas, water and energy drinks to those who stayed well past 10 p.m.

The result was a meeting that lasted more than four hours, prompting Mayor Andrus to adjourn and effectively table the urban camping ordinance for the time being. No commissioner objected to the adjournment.  

“I’m not going to extend this meeting any more,” Andrus said.

Finegan said that his group met with Bozeman City Commissioner Christopher Coburn prior to the meeting, and that the conversation turned to what could be done to stall the political process and give both the public and city officials more time to consider the issue.

“I didn’t give them advice … but I told them the ways we could delay this a bit,” Coburn told MTFP.

Coburn said that he doesn’t side with Bozeman Tenants United on every issue but agreed that taking more time to study how the city can legally and ethically enforce urban camping restrictions was the right thing to do.

“I don’t know if ‘proud’ is the right word, but I’m encouraged by them,” Coburn said. 

Coburn added that his priority is fixing affordable housing in Bozeman “at the root of the issue” and not persecuting folks who are down on their luck. He hopes the draft proposal for an urban camping ordinance will now go back to the city’s economic vitality and parking boards for further review and more public hearings before it boomerangs back to the city commission at a later date.

For Bozeman Mayor Andrus, the whole situation is a bit frustrating. 

“I don’t know if that was a savvy move,” Andrus told MTFP when asked about the political maneuvering that took place at the meeting.

Instead, Andrus said it was time for the commission to hear the urban camping ordinance due to the urgency of the situation, including a backlog of complaints from home and business owners who regularly call and email the city about problems with campers in their neighborhoods. She said the city could have enacted an emergency ordinance that immediately restricted urban camping, but that wasn’t the right thing to do. 

Andrus added that she appreciates how motivated Bozeman Tenants United members are in advocating for housing affordability and tenants’ rights, but admits that there’s only so much the city can do to help them.

“The city put a mill levy in 2021 for affordable housing, but unfortunately that didn’t pass,” Andrus added.

Bozeman’s mayor pointed to recent projects like converting the city’s downtown fire station into affordable housing, raising money to extend hours at the city’s warming center, and allocating $2.4 million to the city’s affordable housing fund as concrete actions that aim to lessen housing insecurity.

Although currently hamstrung by the state Legislature, Andrus said funneling tourist dollars into affordable housing through a local-option sales tax would be the best way to trim the city’s housing costs and put dollars back in the wallets of cash-strapped Bozemanites.

“Our tax system is broken,” Andrus said.

Meanwhile, folks at the city’s homeless encampments are breathing a sigh of relief after what they thought was essentially an eviction notice in the making.

One of those residents named Mike — who asked that his last name not be used — said that a five-day limit on urban camping would likely drive him out of Bozeman for good.

Sitting in the sliding doorway of his broken-down Chevy van, the 59-year-old carpenter was busy fixing a generator he uses to run lights and a refrigerator for his nearby travel trailer when interviewed by MTFP. 

This camper was parked recently near the intersection of Galloway Street and Davis Lane in Bozeman, along with 10-15 others. Credit: Matt Standal / MTFP

“It took me five days to level this thing out,” he said, pointing to his aluminum-sided trailer, which featured an amalgamation of boards and fence nailed to it. 

Originally from Vancouver, Wash., Mike said he was paying a friend $200 per month to lease a room in Belgrade, but when the terms changed, he was literally out on the street. He’s been in the encampment on Rawhide Ridge Road near Winco Foods for four months now and said folks like him don’t have it easy.

Whether it’s kids shooting BB guns at camper windows, teens throwing energy drinks at parked cars, or the latest egging incident where a whole carton was launched from a moving vehicle, Mike said his neighbors are regularly harassed, making him feel unsafe.

“They honk their horns and yell, ‘Get a job!’” he said. 

Mike said there’s a misconception that most people in Bozeman’s urban camps don’t have jobs or contribute to society. He and his neighbors work at fast food restaurants, car repair shops, gas stations and in the construction trades, he said.

“Take 10 minutes and stop and talk to us,” Mike said.

Asked if there was one thing the city could do for folks like him, Mike said it would be helpful for the city to provide some sort of electrical hookups at the camps, along with facilities for public showers and laundry.

“I’d gladly pay for that,” he said.

The delay of the vote on the urban camping ordinance is a victory for Bozeman Tenants United, but it is only a temporary one. The ordinance is still on the table, and it is likely to be brought up for a vote again. In the meantime, Mike and the other residents of Bozeman’s urban camps will continue to live in limbo, unsure of what the future holds.

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Matt Standal is a Montana-based multimedia journalist with a background in filmmaking and outdoor education. While he's produced stories for local news broadcasters in Minnesota and Idaho, Matt's favorite job is leading backcountry ski tours in Yellowstone National Park. He's also a former PADI scuba instructor, emergency medical technician and devoted book nerd. You can find Matt teaching avalanche safety classes when he's not working with film crews or digging into stories.