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Gianforte pushes trades education, more construction as fixes for Montana housing crunch

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Gov. Greg Gianforte speaks alongside construction leaders and trades apprentices at a Bozeman construction site Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022. PHOTO BY ERIC DIETRICH / MTFP

Montana governor touts apprenticeship programs, housing task force recommendations in front of Bozeman apartment development

by Eric Dietrich MONTANA FREE PRESS

Standing in front of a luxury apartment complex under construction in Bozeman Thursday, Gov. Greg Gianforte touted his efforts to address Montana’s housing affordability crunch by promoting new residential development.

Flanked by construction industry leaders and hi-viz-clad apprentice tradespeople, the governor’s press conference focused on his administration’s decision to bolster the state’s skilled construction workforce by letting companies train more apprentices. He also pointed to the zoning reform measures and other recommendations published by his Housing Task Force earlier this month, saying working with legislators to implement those ideas will be one of his top priorities next year.

“I think this affordability and attainability of housing is probably the biggest issue facing working families in Montana,” Gianforte said. “That’s why we put the task force together.”

The governor reiterated his often-repeated assertion that a shortage of available homes is the root cause of Montana’s housing woes, with rents and home purchase prices climbing out of reach for many working residents. Between 2010 and 2020 U.S. Census data indicates that Montana’s population grew by 10%, but the number of homes in the state grew only by 7%.

Gianforte described his administration’s efforts to move the ball on housing as a collection of short-yardage football plays. He believes the state has made some incremental gains, he said, “but there’s still a lot of game left and we’re going to run some more plays.”

The governor also criticized burdensome zoning constraints and “government-imposed mandates” as having constricted housing supply, making it hard for residents like police officers and teachers to live in the communities where they work.

“High-density housing like that behind us here is part of the solution,” Gianforte said.

Outside the construction site on a fence facing Bozeman’s 19th Avenue, a sign promoted the development, the 19th and Graf project, as soon-to-be-available “luxury apartments.” The complex, it said, would include two spas, two 24-hour fitness centers and a “Resort Style Pool,” among other “Expansive Amenities Tailored to the Bozeman Lifestyle.”

Development application materials filed with the Bozeman City Planning department indicate the first phase of the 26-acre project will include nearly 200 apartment units, most in three-story buildings. The developer, Bozeman-based Braxton Development, describes the project as a “Class A” project, a real estate industry term that generally refers to newer, high-end developments that rents units at comparatively expensive prices for a local market. 

An adjacent, newly developed apartment complex near the 19th and Graf Project, Nexus Point, was advertising 993-square foot, two-bedroom apartments starting at $2,150 a month Thursday. A job posting for a campus preschool teacher at Montana State University a short drive away advertised an hourly pay rate of $18.50 an hour. At those rates, the Nexus Point rent would consume nearly three-quarters of a full-time preschool teacher’s pre-tax pay.

Asked Thursday how the construction of new luxury apartment housing would help modest-income workers, the governor pointed to the housing task force report, which notes denser development can make more efficient use of land and infrastructure such as roads and water lines.

“Every cost increases the cost of an individual unit,” Gianforte said. “When you put more units in an individual space, costs go down and it becomes more affordable.”

“This is really just representative of a more dense development project and it was convenient today for us to do the press conference here,” the governor also said.

Before the press conference, the governor chatted with plumbing, electrician and carpentry apprentices working for Dick Anderson Construction, Williams Plumbing & Heating, Rocky Mountain Electric and Campbell’s Plumbing & Heating, shaking hands and asking trainees what drew them to their work.

“We want to really promote the trades,” he told a group of young plumbers. “We need more houses, and we need more plumbers to get them built.”

Construction business leaders said at the press event that the administration’s apprentice policy shift, which changed the apprentice ratios allowed by state jobsite training rules from half an apprentice per journeyman to two per journeyman, makes it easier for them to train the workers they need to complete projects.

“Specifically in Bozeman, we have so much demand for building and not enough people to do it,” said Austin Walker, a senior project manager at Dick Anderson, one of the state’s largest construction companies.

Gianforte said the state’s registered apprenticeship program has added nearly 900 new apprentices since the start of the year, representing trades such as plumbers, carpenters and linemen.

A workforce report published this month by the state Department of Labor & Industry estimated that post-high school programs in Montana produce too few graduates relative to industry demand in many skilled trades. For example, the DLI economists who authored the report estimate that the state graduates about 109 electricians a year for a field where there are 138 to 346 openings a year. 

Montana electricians, the DLI report noted, make a median wage of $60,560 a year. Paying 12 months of rent at the Nexus Point development single handedly would consume about 40% of that figure.

This story is published by Montana Free Press as part of the Long Streets Project, which explores Montana’s economy with in-depth reporting. This work is supported in part by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation, which encourages communication on issues, trends, and values of importance to Montanans. Discuss MTFP’s Long Streets work with Lead Reporter Eric Dietrich at edietrich@montanafreepress.org.

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