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Billings housing agency selling larger units to meet changing community needs

Latch locking system for door in Interior Designing
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A door lock.

Billings’ housing authority is selling off more than 50 homes in its inventory as it focuses on meeting a demand for smaller affordable housing options.

HomeFront CEO Patti Webster says the agency began a review of its existing homes about two years ago. It found that of the 7,000 people on the waiting list for assistance, the majority were waiting for one- and two-bedroom homes.

“All of our single-family homes for our public housing program are all three- and four-bedroom units,” she says. “We really need to make an adjustment and... respond to the community needs.”

Webster says HomeFront expects to take in between $11 million and $13 million from the sale of 54 single-family homes to a private buyer. The houses are under contract and the sale should close early next year. Residents are being given different accommodations, Webster says, including other public housing and Section 8 vouchers that can be used to rent on the private market.

HomeFront is forming a Charter Housing Coalition — made up of community leaders, elected officials and housing experts — to recommend what types of projects the agency can fund with the proceeds from the sale. That could mean enhancing an existing program, or developing new units.

“We want it to be livable housing,” Webster says. “Not just affordable housing.”

She says in addition to a lack of inventory in town, the housing available has gotten more expensive — even out of reach for many families using Section 8 vouchers. Webster says there are 280 vouchers at risk of going unused this year because families can’t find a place to rent.

“That's housing assistance that our community is actually at a risk of losing next year,” she says.

“We're actually at a risk of losing between $700,000 and $800,000 in housing assistance because we can't utilize the vouchers that we have from [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development].

“I mean, the market ebbs and flows. And in my 30 years here of experience, I've seen that. I've never seen it this bad.”

Webster says she hopes working with the community and elected officials on the Charter Housing Coalition can lead to a housing policy for Billings.

“We need to be able and ready to respond to a housing crisis appropriately,” she says.

The coalition is expected to meet for the first time in November and should have a recommendation for what to fund with the sale of the homes by the end of the year.