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Student housing

The ROAM Student Living complex in Missoula will include two levels of parking, four commercial spaces on the ground floor and 468 beds in a range of studio to four-bedroom apartments.

CHELSEA CULP, Missoulian

Missoula’s housing affordability problem calls for creative solutions. As the population grows and demand rises, the problem is only going to get worse. In fact, just last month, Missoula legislators joined housing experts in Helena to warn a state legislative committee that our housing affordability crisis is developing into a statewide problem.

The cost to buy a home in Missoula has increased by more than 32 percent since 2010, according to the latest report, “Making Missoula Home: A Path to Attainable Housing.” The median home price is now more than $268,000, which requires an income of at least $70,000 a year to afford. But the median household income in Missoula County is only about $46,000, which is why the home ownership rate in Missoula is far below the state and national averages.

The same report also noted that 17,000 households in Missoula are “cost-burdened,” meaning more than 30 percent of their income is spent on housing. The rental vacancy rate is less than 3 percent.

And while Missoula is seeing a continuing boom in construction, we are also experiencing major housing losses, such as the 40 homes that will no longer provide affordable housing with the impending closure of Skyview Trailer Park. Last week, the Missoulian reported that nearly 200 mobile home residents were recently notified that their homes would be auctioned off by the county if they did not pay delinquent property taxes before April 11.

One of the ways Missoulians can have a hand in fixing this situation is to push for better planning. And fortunately, Missoula County happens to be in the process of planning for future growth well into the next decades.

The county has been working off of a land use map, which shows 64 different land use designations, that was first put together in the mid-1970s. It is sorely in need of updating to accommodate the approximately 2,000 people who move into the county each year, as well as the changing needs of current county residents.

Part of smart planning includes tracking key demographics, such as age. A lot of attention has been paid to Missoula’s university students, but housing aimed at other age groups, such as seniors, would help relieve some of the pressure on students and others as well. Missoula would be wise to look at what is working in other communities and consider how those ideas might apply here.

This week, for instance, work is starting in Hamilton on what will become the state’s first housing cooperative. Called the Riverside Crossing Active Adult Cooperative (riversidecrossing.org), the planned community of 51 homes on 8.5 acres is intended for residents 55 years old and up. For that reason, the cottages will be built in “pocket neighborhoods” that feature shared open space, circular walkways and a common house to entertain larger groups.

In a housing cooperative, buyers own a share in the entire development, rather than an individual home. Similarly, all maintenance and other costs for the homes is covered by the development through a monthly fee paid by residents – an appealing arrangement for those who find it more difficult to take care of their properties as they get older. Should a resident choose to sell at some point, the price will remain affordable because the value can increase by only 1 percent a year.

The Ravalli County Council on Aging has been working on the project for more than a dozen years. If Missoula wants to do something similar, it had better get started.

Missoulians had also better begin getting used to the idea of denser development and infill. As the county population grows, it makes more sense to locate new housing along existing infrastructure, from water and power lines to bus routes.

Current zoning severely limits the amount of land available for the kind of dense development needed to keep housing affordable. The entire county ought to help decide which areas are best suited for affordable housing developments.

Ideally, clearer zoning would ease some of the headache caused by subdivision regulations, further removing some of the financial burden that comes with new construction.

Missoula County has already organized five public meetings, one of which was held downtown, to gather community input on planning. A second opportunity to offer suggestions will begin within the next few weeks.

Anyone with an interest in housing affordability should plan on getting involved.

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