As a Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA) attorney representing Montanans in poverty, I want to provide a fuller understanding of low-income renters in context of Rep. David Hagstrom's letter to his tenants.
Approximately 15 percent of Montanans live in poverty, and it's a myth they don't work. Most who seek legal assistance from MLSA for housing issues work a lot — often more than one job — but don't get paid a lot. Montana falls in the last third of states for per-person income. Those clients who don't work are typically disabled or ill, are seniors, have been illegally fired or are domestic violence survivors who've had to flee from abuse; in other words, jobless through no fault of their own. Hagstrom's recommendation that low-income renters work more or harder and learn to live on less is unrealistic and insulting.
While decent housing provides stability, dignity, health and safety, and increases educational and job prospects, many renters don't have it. They're victims of illegal evictions, outrageous late fees, discrimination and unsafe conditions. They face these challenges as best they can. The last thing they need is a list of recommendations from their landlord about the need to become more responsible.
Everyone, including Hagstrom, would do well to remember the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who said: "In these days of difficulty, we Americans everywhere must and shall choose the path of social justice ... The path of faith, the path of hope and the path of love toward our fellow man."