Local leaders buckle down to address Missoula’s housing crisis

Both workforce and subsidized housing rise near downtown Missoula, though the demand for housing continues to outpace supply and local wages, experts say. (Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

A delegation of community leaders will visit a number of other cities to explore ways to house those with chronic addictions – a cheaper option than placing them in detention or sending them to the emergency room, the city’s mayor said.

A coalition of community groups is also taking a deeper look at the city’s housing situation to identify barriers to what one industry expert described as obtainably priced housing.

From Missoula’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness to building more affordable housing for the city’s working class, the issue continues to linger as a community challenge. If left unaddressed, it could also limit Missoula’s economic potential.

“There are two critical pieces missing for us around housing in the city of Missoula,” Mayor John Engen said this week. “One is a plan – we don’t have one. The other is how we fund whatever that plan is.”

A report released by the Missoula Organization of Realtors in February found that home prices across the Missoula urban area increased nearly 7 percent in 2016, with the median price of a home hitting an all-time high of $256,000.

Engen said housing is a function of inventory and Missoula needs to boost that inventory across all incomes. That includes everything from homes at the high end of the spectrum to subsidized housing for those earning a lower income.

“Our preference, our plans, our policies are all about growing our community inward and taking advantage of existing infrastructure to help lower the cost of housing,” Engen said. “If we make investments in public housing, that makes a difference as well. If it’s tied into transportation and other existing infrastructure, that helps a lot.”

Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss said affordable housing also remains an issue with the county, particularly areas within the Missoula metropolitan area.

While roughly 4,500 lots have been approved for housing in the urban area, Curtiss said, the construction hasn’t followed and the county wants to know why.

“Most of that land was purchased at a time when the cost of land was doggone high,” Curtiss said. “Figuring out how to take those approved subdivisions and help folks realize whether they even designed the right sized lots or the right kind of subdivisions – and put that land to use – is a challenge.”

The Missoula Organization of Realtors released its housing snapshot ahead of this year’s annual housing report, which comes out this month. Early figures suggest that the cost of housing shot up 6.7 percent in 2016, marking the sixth straight year Missoula has seen the cost of housing climb.

Over the past year, economic experts have said the city’s housing costs stand in sharp contrast with local wages, including college graduates who earn just $32,000 a year on average in Missoula.

High-end housing should remain part of the mix as the city looks to increase its housing stock, city leaders say. (Missoula Current)

“A lot of Missoulians are facing decreasing opportunities to find obtainably priced housing,” said Sam Sill with the Missoula Organization of Realtors. “This lack of affordability disrupts housing options across the income spectrum and has negative effects on the workforce, the economy and our quality of life.”

Joined by the Missoula Chamber of Commerce, the Missoula Economic Partnership and the city and county, MOR has launched a new housing study and expects to have the results by August.

“What we’re really trying to do here is take a look at the barriers to developing more obtainably priced housing and what are the solutions,” said Sill. “We want this to be something the local governments look at in terms of evaluating regulations, and also make developers aware of the tools out there that may be underutilized.”

Engen, who created the new Office of Housing and Community Development last year, said housing for the chronically addicted must also be part of the equation. The concept was referred to as “wet housing” early on, though officials have since selected other descriptors.

As it currently stands, Engen said, the city has two options when dealing with the chronically inebriated. Either they go to the emergency room, where the costs are passed on through the system, or they end up detention, which costs taxpayers money.

Engen believes there are more cost-effective ways to deal with the problem.

“Neither one of those is a place you want to be, and neither one of them makes sense,” Engen said. “So we’re looking at a model where folks who are chronically inebriated or addicted at least have access to treatment, and if treatment doesn’t take, they have an opportunity to live with their disease with dignity and ultimately cost the community less.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com