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More than 5,000 Montanans are waiting for rental assistance — 800 of them are in Bozeman. Once their names get called, some will have to continue to wait or be passed up altogether because there aren’t enough houses that qualify for the program.

The Human Resource Development Council in Bozeman has 450 Housing Choice Vouchers it can offer families to help cover rent.

Shari Eslinger, HRDC housing director, said the nonprofit is only able to use about 415 of those vouchers.

“We don’t have the stock for the one-or-two bedroom apartments that’s needed to fill those vouchers,” Eslinger said during a meeting with Bozeman city commissioners earlier this week.

The voucher program — sometimes called Section 8 vouchers — funnels federal money through the state to housing agencies like HRDC to distribute. People in the program pay 30% of their household’s monthly income toward rent. The voucher covers the rest.

Cheryl Cohen, Montana Housing operations manager, said the length of the waitlist varies across Montana.

“It can be anywhere from a handful of people to more than 1,000,” Cohen said. “Billings, Bozeman, Missoula, Kalispell, all tend to have the higher waitlists.”

Rent ceilings for the vouchers vary from county to county based on what the federal government defines as a fair price for each area.

Gallatin County’s standards, new this month, mean someone looking for a one-bedroom place needs to find something for $836 or less. A two-bedroom rental needs to be $1,090 or less. Some people can qualify for slightly higher prices, as long as they don’t pay more than 40% of their income on rent.

Those price ceilings are higher than any other in Montana for the voucher program — and they’re a jump from last year’s standards.

Even so, the wait is long. Those who received rental vouchers in Bozeman last year were on the list for two to three years, Cohen said.

Last year, 27 of the families who received vouchers never used them.

Cohen said that could be because people have 120 days to put the voucher to use before it expires — even if they can’t find a place.

“They weren’t able to use it for whatever reason,” Cohen said. “Whether they were unable to find a market rental or something else happened, where maybe they decided to move to another location.”

Montana’s problem of demand outpacing the vouchers isn’t unique.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities wrote in 2017 that almost three million families were waiting for a voucher in the United States. That same year, the Public and Affordable Housing Research Corporation estimated another nine million people would be waiting if waitlists hadn’t closed throughout the nation due to the backlog.

Cohen said HRDC is one of the nonprofits in the state “really on top of pulling folks off the waitlist regularly.”

Eslinger said it typically takes about a year for people to tap into HRDC’s affordable housing or subsidized housing support after first applying.

The nonprofit also offers a place to sleep through the winter for people without a place to live. The majority of the people HRDC supports have jobs in town that don’t keep up with the area’s prices so they can teeter into financial insecurity.

“All our housing services are trying to make homelessness very brief and one-time, it’s very challenging specifically for those that have housing choice vouchers,” Eslinger said.

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Katheryn Houghton can be reached at khoughton@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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