By Martin Kidston
It came as no surprise when a survey commissioned by the Missoula Organization of Realtors found that a strong majority of Missoula County residents believe the cost of housing is too high. And 60 percent of residents want local policymakers to get serious about controlling the cost of housing.
But suggestions for how to achieve that goal provided some novel insights and a wide range of possibilities – options the Missoula City Council will likely discuss in the months ahead as affordable housing remains an issue.
“What we found was that residents are indeed ready for local governments to begin addressing affordability,” said Sam Sill, public affairs director with the Missoula Organization of Realtors. “It looks like they’re ready for local governments to take proactive steps to address it.”
Sill presented MOR’s latest survey to the City Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee on Wednesday, where the findings were received with both intrigue and skepticism.
The survey was conducted last October and November by American Strategies, a polling firm based in Washington, D.C. It quizzed 500 residents across the county (including 100 renters) to gain a better understanding of local housing issues ranging from community housing preferences to affordability.
According to the survey, 69 percent of those polled said the cost of a home is too high, and 67 percent said apartment rentals are too expensive. As of July, the median cost of a Missoula home was $249,000, while the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $767 per month.
The cost of housing in both categories continues to outpace the median local income, leaving home ownership beyond the reach for many, or placing others in a financial hardship while paying rent.
“Given the affordability issue, we presented some potential policy solutions and asked people about them,” said Sill. “Two we thought that were interesting were reducing regulations and fees on buildings and developers, and providing incentives for developers, all with the goal of increasing the availability of affordable housing.”
The top solutions, according to the survey, include reducing property taxes to make home ownership more affordable, and placing a tax on box stores to create an affordable housing trust fund.
Popular options also included reviving the Missoula Affordable Housing Task Force, and offering incentives and tax breaks to developers who build housing for those earning a low to moderate income.
“Much of our affordable housing policies in this country really encourage affordable housing that’s rentals,” said Ward 1 council member Heidi West. “That’s really a hindrance to creating generational wealth and moving upward in society.”
West believes the city needs to focus more on helping people transition from renting to ownership. She believes it is the city’s role to help residents take that step and build equity to realize their housing goals.
“That whole shift is missing in here – how we could affect people’s lives by helping them move up versus staying from rental to rental,” West said.
Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler agreed, although she said housing comes in all varieties, from homes with yards to condos and downtown lofts. While it’s easy to say the city should reduce fees to help lower the cost of building homes, she added, such claims often lack specifics.
“If we subsidize builders so they can build their houses for slightly less, and a private person buys that, there’s no guarantee it’s going to remain affordable housing,” said Marler. “It becomes someone’s private asset, and we’ve subsidized an individual person’s personal wealth, and we’re trying to do something a little different. I’d like to hear more specific things from the building community.”
Members of the committee criticized some of the survey’s methodology. It was targeted at registered voters, leaving several committee members to suggest that, as a result, it made a demographic of the community “voiceless” in the housing debate.
Others questioned the success of a local survey done by a firm based in Washington, D.C.
“I have a hard time getting my head around someone doing this from Washington,” said Ward 4 council member Jon Wilkins.
Ward 5 council member Julie Armstrong encouraged the Missoula Organization of Realtors to pose open-ended questions on housing issues if it plans to follow up on the survey.
“Open-ended questions yield a lot of creative results, and a lot of answers government can use that aren’t necessarily industry specific,” she said.
“I would note there would tend to be some juggles in that,” Sill replied. “Trying to tease some themes out of that would be a very subjective process.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org