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Housing: Rent Local surges past 100 units, 250 tenants 

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Affordable housing program targets vacation rentals and vacant properties 

By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER 

It’s not a permanent fix, but it’s making a difference right now.  

The Big Sky Community Housing Trust works to increase Big Sky’s workforce housing stock through various strategies including the permanent Good Deeds program and construction partnerships responsible for the RiverView and Powder Light apartments, and MeadowView condominiums. As a short-term solution, the Rent Local program pays property owners willing to rent to Big Sky workers—cash bonuses are calculated on length of a new lease and the number of bedrooms. 

After 20 months, the program is now partnered with more than 100 owners and provides a bed for roughly 250 members of the local workforce. Rent Local faces a surplus of interest from both renters and tenants, according to BSCHT Program Director Becky Brockie, who spoke with Explore Big Sky. 

“There is no [rental] inventory right now,” Brockie said. “This [program] increases inventory and helps small businesses stay in business, secure hires and provide housing for employees.” 

The housing trust reports that since 2018, Big Sky’s long-term vacancy rate has fallen from 1% to 0%—even further below a healthy vacancy rate of 3%—as the post-pandemic visitation surge made short-term rentals more profitable. To ease some pressure, Rent Local began targeting vacation rentals and properties that sit empty for most of the year.  

Rent Local’s impact as of mid-April 2023. COURTESY OF BSCHT

Brockie said it’s a borrowed idea. At first, BSCHT partnered with a company called Landing Locals out of Truckee, Calif., a zero-budget program that depended on altruism. Eventually, Landing Locals became funded by the Truckee government.  

In August 2021, the housing trust launched a Big Sky spinoff, Rent Local, funded by Resort Tax and the Spanish Peaks, Moonlight and Yellowstone Club Community Foundations. 

The initial goal was 100 properties, but Brockie said the housing trust didn’t know what to expect.  

“It was just a hope and a dream that it would make some sort of difference until we could build something more permanent,” she said, adding that the biggest drawback is the program’s lack of permanency.  

“We pay owners for a year or two, and that’s it,” she said. “But we feel until Big Sky comes off that 0% vacancy rate… We feel like we still need the program. Without it, we’d have nothing to offer anybody who called us today.” 

Even with more than 100 Rent Local units, Brockie said the housing trust often faces overwhelming interest from tenants. 

“The last very affordable property we had in our Rent Local program, I shut the applications down once we had 12, and they would have kept coming in… I have no idea how many applicants there would have ended up being,” Brockie said. In the first 12 applicants, she saw that plenty were qualified.  

There’s plenty of property owners interested, too.  

In February, the program adjusted its minimum commitment from six months to one year. Some of the program’s early tenants were banking on a lease renewal after six months that never came, Brockie explained. The housing trust decided to rule out property owners who weren’t willing to commit to the full year.   

“The last thing we want to do is displace locals, so we [now] require a one-year commitment,” Brockie said.   

With more property owners interested than the housing trust can afford to pay, eligible owners are selected through a lottery system.  

The housing trust focuses 65% of its Rent Local budget on adding vacant or vacation properties to the long-term market. Only 35% of the budget goes to renters already renting long-term.   

“If we could give an incentive to every property owner in Big Sky renting long-term to locals, we would. But we can’t afford to do that… We don’t intend to disappoint or insult people who have been renting long-term for years. But we need more inventory now, and that inventory exists [outside of established long-term renters].” 

Brockie believes that anecdotally, renters are leaving the short-term market for a few reasons. Reservations have declined since the post-COVID peak, and property management fees have increased, she suggested.  

“There’s people looking for a little more stability. We can provide that.” 

A statewide model 

The idea to incentivize long-term rentals is not limited to Big Sky—Rep. Jane Gillette sponsored House Bill 430 and told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle it was based on Rent Local. The bill proposed to tax short-term rentals 25 cents per hundred dollars, generating revenue to enable a tax rebate for homeowners willing to rent long-term.  

HB 430 enjoyed early success but didn’t go far in the legislature. 

“It was highly supported when it went through its first committee,” Brockie said. “It had no opponents, and all sorts of organizations came out and spoke up for it. I think we were pretty hopeful it might go somewhere because of that, [but] why it didn’t, I don’t know.” 

The Montana Free Press capitol tracker lists HB 430 as “probably dead” after missing the April 6 deadline for a House vote. It passed out of the two-thirds-Republican House Taxation Committee on March 28, but was tabled unanimously in the House Appropriations Committee. 

Brockie said it was exciting to see Big Sky in a state-level dialogue, “but more importantly [in discussion] about housing issues that affect all of Montana.” 

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