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A South Billings landlord and state legislator is warning low-income renters to accept that they don’t need “to live as long as they currently do, or as ‘comfortably’ as they currently do.”

In an April 1 letter to his low-income tenants, Republican Rep. Dave Hagstrom warned that as a result of living beyond its means, America was due for sharp reductions in government spending that could affect everything from health care and social security to hot lunch. Many of the programs cited are used by Hagstrom’s tenants, who he said were, like all Americans, “living in a bit of a fairytale lifestyle.”

Tax records show Hagstrom owns 11 rental properties, including 18 apartment units and homes with a combined 26 bedrooms.

Renters who spoke with The Gazette said they were offended by the legislator’s comments, but not surprised. Because the letter was dated April 1, some of its recipients assumed it was an April Fools joke. It was not.

Hagstrom also warned renters “to accept the fact that you and your neighbor are going to have to work harder than ever, may take a second or third job and live on less,” and they should begin taking in family members who need help, “even if you could pawn them off on the government.”

Thursday, Hagstrom said he wrote his tenants out of respect and esteem and because soon America will not be able to provide the level of public services it currently does, particularly for seniors whose medical costs ratchet up in the final years of life. Particularly in Montana, where the population is rapidly graying, the burden of care is significant, he said.

“My concern is that the level of care that we’ve come to expect between the age of 65 and death will at some point in time have to be curtailed,” Hagstrom said.

One renter, fearing eviction if Hagstrom read his name in the newspaper, said his life has been anything but a fairy tale as he turns to public assistance for basic care. Furthermore, he said every month, 90 percent of his income is passed on to Hagstrom in the form of rent.

“He’s getting fat off of people like me because on the South Side a good percentage of his tenants are taking 90 percent of their funding and giving it to him,” the renter said. “After I pay him, I don’t have money to go to Wal-Mart and buy T-shirts. He’s getting fat off the people he’s trying to take benefits from.”

Another renter, also fearing eviction if publicly identified, said Hagstrom is a nice guy, but his politics are what they are.

"He's a Republican. That's what all Republicans believe," the man said, as he cooked dinner in his driveway surrounded by rundown homes with small yards and fading paint jobs. "Veterans, poor people, haven't they paid enough? America is best when everyone is equal. If I got to pay 15 percent of my income in taxes, the rich should have to pay 15 percent, too."

In his first term as a legislator representing South Billings, Hagstrom’s votes on public assistance have been conservative.

He voted against bringing House Bill 98 to the House floor. The bill would have allowed more money for free and reduced lunch programs targeting low-income children in public schools.

Hagstrom voted to eliminate Title X funding, which at Planned Parenthood pays for cancer screenings, contraception and other preventative care for women.

Hagstrom also opposed increasing the maximum residential property tax credits available to seniors paying individual income taxes. The measure was in House Bill 272.

And Hagstrom voted against bringing Medicaid expansion to the House floor for a vote. House Bill 590 would extend Medicaid to Montanans earning less than $15,400 a year. Currently, the income cut off for Medicaid is slightly less than $11,600. The expansion would provide medical care to roughly 60,000 Montanans.

Medicaid expansion has been one of the most contentious issues at the 2013 Legislature, but it isn’t as unpopular as some lawmakers would have constituents believe, said Sheena Rice, Eastern Montana organizer and lobbyist for the Montana Organizing Project.

There are lawmakers who share Hagstrom’s sentiments about public assistance, but most don’t, she said.

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“Sadly, I think it is shared by other lawmakers, but I don’t think it’s shared by a majority of lawmakers. There is a vocal minority,” Rice said.

Rice works in Billings when the Legislature isn’t in session and she knows several of Hagstrom’s renters who have worked with the Montana Organizing Project. She said some of those renters are incapable of taking Hagstrom’s advice.

“A lot of the tenants in his buildings are disabled. They can’t work three jobs,” Rice said. “And is he saying that they should just die?

“I just think it shows how out of touch he is with what Montanans living on the brink of poverty have to deal with.”

Hagstrom is not a stranger to low-income housing. His efforts to provide housing in South Billings have been profiled in The Gazette more than once. He admits that a strong current of federal dollars flows through his housing developments, as well as the 11 properties from which he collects rent. Some of his renters rely on the federal Housing Voucher Program, often called Section 8.

Federal Housing and Urban Development records also show at least $174,119 in subsidies going to low-income housing projects spearheaded by organizations in which Hagstrom played key roles. Those subsidies were part of the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit program.

Because government subsidies play a strong role in Hagstrom's business, the lawmaker said he too will be affected when the federal government starts cutting funding.

"It may be hard advice and I'm not opposed to hard advice," Hagstrom said of his letter. "You need to understand the context of the communication here. The context is a relationship between me and the tenants and I absolutely care about them."

At the end of the letter, Hagstrom wished his tenants a restful Easter.

 

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Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.