Missoula Organization of Realtors
Missoula County residents continue to struggle with the high cost of housing. Since 2013, the median home sale price has increased $40,000 to an all-time high of $255,000 in 2016. This is well beyond what a median income family can afford. While residential construction has picked up in recent years, the inventory of homes for sale has steadily decreased relative to demand, driving prices ever higher. Entry-level priced homes are especially scarce.
Rental vacancy rates continue to be low. Census data suggests 47 percent of Missoula County renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. After paying the rent, these overburdened families have little left for life’s other necessities.
This lack of affordability is bad for Missoula families and bad for Missoula’s economy. If we don’t want to become a less diverse, less inclusive, and less prosperous community, we need to take steps to address the affordability issue.
Missoula County has proposed “Housekeeping Amendments” and “Capital Changes” to its zoning regulations. The Missoula Organization of REALTORS® supports these changes. We believe they will provide developers with greater predictability, flexibility, and increase opportunities for entry-level housing.
The county’s zoning regulations were adopted more than 40 years ago. The “Housekeeping Amendments” update the regulations to ensure the county complies with adopted laws and policies and that zoning regulations align with other departmental regulations. The goal is that any county resident can easily understand these regulations and rely on them to be accurate and complete.
Predictability is important. Unpredictable compliance with zoning leads to increased costs that developers pass on to consumers of housing in the form of higher prices.
“Capital Changes” contains amendments designed to create greater flexibility and opportunity for developers to provide affordable housing. One of the most important is a shift to pyramidal zoning. This will allow housing development in a broader range of zoning districts, creating greater opportunities to increase the supply of entry-level housing.
“Housekeeping Amendments” and “Capital Changes” represent the first phase in a series of changes to the zoning regulations that Missoula County plans to propose. The next phase of amendments will have to do with zoning of the county’s urban areas. After that, the county will take up amendments to rural zoning. MOR will review these upcoming amendments carefully once they are available.
It’s worth noting that more than half of the land in Missoula County is owned by the federal or state governments. A significant portion of the remaining land is encumbered with conservation easements, or is too steep or too remote for housing. The bottom line is that relatively little county land is suitable for the entry-level housing our community needs.
The urban fringe area presents great opportunities for entry-level housing. This area is close to existing infrastructure and services like sewer, water, police, fire, schools, parks, and trails. Housing built in the urban fringe area requires less new infrastructure and puts less strain on services than development further out in the county. This allows for housing that is more affordable for consumers and less costly for local governments. It also allows for thoughtfully planned neighborhoods that offer residents a great quality of life.
The county will have many priorities to weigh as it considers the next two phases of zoning regulation amendments. Conserving agricultural land is desirable, and we applaud the voluntary conservation efforts that have been so successful in Missoula County. But using zoning to place more restrictions on the development of housing in the urban fringe area is not in the best interests of county residents. It is critical that we encourage, rather than obstruct, responsible development of entry-level housing in the places where it makes sense to build it.
We encourage county residents to join us in supporting “Housekeeping Amendments” and “Capital Changes.” Submit written comments to Jennie Dixon (firstname.lastname@example.org). You may also comment at the Board of County Commissioners public hearing on March 9 at 2:00 PM in Room 151 in the County Courthouse Annex.
DJ Smith is the Chair of MOR’s Government Affairs Committee. Mike Nugent is a past president of MOR and Vice Chair of MOR’s Government Affairs Committee