By Elinor Smith UM LEGISLATIVE NEWS SERVICE
HELENA—Lawmakers in Helena are considering a bill that would prohibit rent caps, or limits on how much landlords can charge for rent.
Senate Bill 105, sponsored by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, would make it illegal for local governments to interfere with rental prices on both private and commercial properties.
Several proponents of the bill, including real estate agents, landlords and property managers, told a Senate committee Tuesday that rent control contributes to disrepair in rental properties and discourages new construction that could reduce the cost of housing over time.
Fitzpatrick said rent caps would feed into a decline of Montana’s housing market.
“Over the last few years, dozens of municipalities across the country have enacted rent control legislation. And many of those people, I think they make arguments pertaining to it’s unaffordable and the rents are increasing so much. And I think we all sympathize with that, but ultimately, I think studies and economic data has shown that rent control actually leads to a decrease in housing over time,” Fitzpatrick said.
Sam Sill spoke in favor of the bill for the Montana Association of Realtors.
“Ultimately rent control asks property owners and landlords to disproportionately bear what we want to do in terms of making housing more affordable for people,” Sill said.
The bill drew two opponents, including a representative for the Council of Montana Cities and Towns and a renter who has struggled to find housing in Kalispell. Both said the bill is unnecessary.
Proponents said because SB 105 would make exceptions for low-income, or “section eight” housing, the people most affected by high rental costs would still have options. But, Kalispell renter Mandy Gerth said placing more obstacles to affordable housing in the middle of Montana’s housing crisis could further aggravate the issue.
“I spent over a thousand dollars on rental applications. Like so many people, I was on an extremely long wait list for Section eight housing. And despite good credit and full-time employment, buying anything close to affordable was impossible. In 2021, for example, I was paying 80% of my full-time salary for our housing,” Gerth said.
According to Michael O’Neil, the executive director of the Helena Housing Authority, there are currently 624 people on the waitlist for “section eight” housing in Helena alone. He says the best way for people who need section eight housing to apply is on their website.
“It’s important to get on the waitlist because it never gets shorter unless you’re on it,” O’Neil said.
SB 105 also includes several sections unrelated to housing that would limit what local governments can and can’t do, including one that would prevent local governments from stopping the sale of nicotine alternatives and vapor products and another that would allow amateur radio stations to be conducted from a moving vehicle.
The committee did not vote on the bill Tuesday.
Elinor Smith is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.