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Missoula is slowly chipping away at a chronic lack of affordable housing, although housing prices versus incomes here are still worse than in some of the largest, most unaffordable cities in America.

Bryce Ward, an economist at the University of Montana's Bureau of Business and Economic Research, recently completed an analysis that shows Missoula's median-priced home is worth 5.81 times the median household income here.

That's a higher ratio than those found in Denver (4.85), Seattle (4.98), Portland, Oregon (5.02), Miami (5.07) and the United States overall (3.56). Bozeman is the only Montana city higher, at 5.68.

Of Montana cities, Missoula has the highest percentage of people, 32 percent, who spend more than 30 percent of their income on their mortgage.

Ward also found that 47 percent of Missoulians spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, a metric that has been accepted as meaning renters are overly burdened. Still, the median gross rent in Missoula is $818, which is only 68 percent of the average rent in the western United States.

"Rent levels in Missoula are kind of OKish," Ward explained. "But if you want to buy, that requires a really high share of your income. Certainly that's something that we have to be worried about in Missoula and Bozeman. It becomes a little bit more of a barrier to people who might otherwise want to live here."

According to Will Sebern, the City of Missoula’s grants administrator, 230 units of existing affordable housing in Missoula have been preserved through acquisition or rehabilitation in the past 12-18 months. In that same time, 35 new units of affordable housing have been developed through new construction or rehabilitation. That's not enough to put a huge dent in demand, but it has helped people like Mike Pullin and his family.

A couple of years ago, Pullin was homeless for three months and living in a van in a Missoula Walmart parking lot. He had come to town from the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation in north-central Montana looking for a better place to raise his daughters, but life took a different turn.

However, he never stopped working, and today he’s back on his feet with the help of a rapid re-housing program coordinated by the local Human Resource Council. He now lives with his family at the Wildflower Apartments, a 96-unit complex that the Missoula Housing Authority recently purchased for $8.2 million to preserve as affordable housing.

“It’s really that type of rags-to-riches story, seriously,” Pullin said. “My daughters like to use the playground here, and we also like taking our dog for walks in the neighborhood.”

The apartments went up for sale last year and were in danger of being converted to market rate rentals, according to MHA executive director Lori Davidson. Now, the apartments are available to anyone who makes less than 60 percent of the Area Median Income. It’s also available to people with subsidized housing vouchers.

A two-bedroom apartment goes for $766 a month, but there also are one-bedrooms and three-bedrooms.

“They are at least 10 percent below market-rate rents in Missoula, if not closer to 15 to 20 percent below market,” Davidson said. “We have a whole range of incomes here.”

In Missoula, a person earning 60 percent of Area Median Income would take home about $27,720 a year, or a family of four would take home $39,540 a year.

Davidson said that because the MHA had so many clients on vouchers living at the complex, and the location was so great, they couldn’t pass up the opportunity to buy them. Now, the addition of the complex means the MHA has about 750 affordable housing units in Missoula. That’s a big deal for people like Pullman who can’t afford to spend huge chunks of every paycheck just on housing.

“The location is also a big deal,” Davidson said. “This is just a perfect location. The schools, the YWCA, the shopping center and grocery store are right nearby, and it’s right on the Mountain Line bus stop, which is free.”

The apartments also are home to workers from Opportunity Resources, a nonprofit that employs people with disabilities who often don’t have driver’s licenses. Davidson estimated that about 150 people live there, and 90 percent of the three-bedroom units are rented by families.

At the same time that Missoula officials are trying to create more affordable housing units, more people in Missoula are losing their affordable homes. Last October, the occupants of roughly 40 trailer homes at the Skyview Trailer Court in Missoula’s Northside neighborhood received eviction notices.

According to Hermina Jean Harold of the North Missoula Community Development Corp., only two households so far have found new housing that they can afford. The nonprofit NMCDC and Neighborworks Montana have been working to help residents find new housing, as well as raising money to help them with relocation costs.

Watch for another story on specific analysis of housing and rent prices in Missoula compared to incomes, as well as an update on Skyview Trailer Park, in Thursday’s Missoulian.

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