By Keila Szpaller DAILY MONTANAN
Affordable housing and affordable food are the top two needs in Montana, and mental health services is the third, according to the results of a statewide needs assessment released this week from Montana State University Extension.
“The results of this needs assessment are already being used by our MSU Extension faculty and staff as they continue to offer programs and resources,” said Carrie Ashe, MSU Extension associate director, in a statement.
MSU Extension works with local partners to examine and address emerging needs in the state.
In a phone call with the Daily Montanan, Ashe said MSU Extension counts 90 faculty across the state working in county and tribal extension offices, and they’re already taking steps to work on housing. She said it’s the first time in roughly seven or eight years the organization has conducted such a survey.
Nearly 2,500 Montanans from all counties and reservations completed the survey, according to MSU Extension. Additionally, more than 800 people participated in listening sessions.
Housing affordability and availability are top issues in Montana as real estate prices have soared across the state and people and families find themselves homeless. The average sales price of a home in Lewis and Clark County, for example, went from $260,000 in January 2019 to nearly $465,000 this month, according to the Helena Association of Realtors.
As for food, the Montana Food Bank Network notes roughly one in 12 Montanans struggle with hunger, 31,010 children live in food insecure homes, and inflation will likely push up those numbers. The Food Bank Network provides food to 340 different partners, such as local food banks, across the state.
In the MSU Extension report, water quality received the highest percentage of people who said it’s “extremely important” or “very important,” at 88.5 percent. Healthcare services was No. 2 at 88.2 percent, and safe and accessible community infrastructure was No. 3 at 87.4 percent.
The MSU Extension survey defined “need” as a combination of importance and dissatisfaction levels. Affordable housing is listed as the top need because 83.7 percent deemed it important, and 74.2 percent said they were dissatisfied with it, and those figures combined pushed that need to No. 1.
But Ashe said even though some of the known issues, such as housing, ranked high, the difference in percent between some of the top needs and ones lower on the list isn’t wide. For example, 80.5 percent of people believe agricultural profitability is “extremely” or “very” important even though it’s lower on the needs list at No. 10.
“It was a tight race to get in the top 20,” Ashe said.
Gina Stevens, chair for the Montana Farm Bureau Federation’s taxation committee, said she was pleased to see the number of people who recognize the importance of agriculture to the state. She also said the need for affordable food ties into agriculture profitability.
“I was glad to see the high numbers, that people realize how that affects everything in the state,” Stevens said. “It’s just an integral part.”
The Montana Farm Bureau is the largest agriculture organization in the state, she said. Stevens said if Montana can keep more people in food production, prices can remain more reasonable, and the best way to do that is to maintain family operations or make it reasonable for someone else to keep farms and ranches going.
“If they’re not profitable, they’re going to get turned over to development … and then you take it out of the food chain,” Stevens said.
But there appears to be tension between agriculture and housing. For example, Stevens said property taxes are the biggest concern for members, with expansions in bigger cities for higher priced condos and other housing pushing up land values and, therefore, property taxes.
“The No. 1 concern about ag is the expanding population of Montana into ag country,” Stevens said.
MSU Extension is a broad organization that works in four program areas, Ashe said: Agriculture and natural resources, community development, 4H youth development, and family and consumer sciences. She said she was pleased to see the areas Montanas said are important do align with the Extension’s priorities.
Also of note to MSU Extension is that 71 percent of respondents said their experience with the Extension improved their lives, she said. Additionally, 74 percent said they shared the information they received from the Extension with others.
In the news release, Ashe said the mission of MSU Extension is to provide “unbiased, research-based information and education to Montanans.” In a phone call, she said one of the important things the Extension does is partner with others who are working on similar missions, such as the state Department of Public Health and Human Resources.
“One of the fundamental practices of MSU Extension is meeting locally identified and statewide needs,” Ashe said in a statement. “At MSU Extension’s core are the needs of the people and places of the state.”