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About 200 people representing a wide range of community groups gathered with public officials Thursday night to offer suggestions they believe will help address Missoula’s affordable housing crisis and enhance current efforts to deal with it.

After a quiet moment of reflection followed by a rousing call out of the organizations represented, the Voices 4 Housing Assembly got down to business.

The nonprofit Missoula Interfaith Collaborative (MIC) hopes its five areas of consideration will provide more support and resources that will directly improve housing for renters, with a focus on people with barriers such as criminal backgrounds and low credit scores.

In addition, the collaborative’s members also want to look for ways to aid renters living in conditions that hurt their health.

“We believe our community must strive toward a reality where all residents have the possibility of living in an affordable home,” Casey Dunning, the MIC executive director, wrote in an email to the Missoulian. “Our city officials and (the) city’s Office of Housing and Community Development are working hard on housing affordability, yet if we are truly going to move the needle, we need everyday people educated on the issue and deeply involved in leading the effort.”

The group noted that almost 50 percent of Missoula residents are renters, and according to one 2018 study, 75 percent of renters within the city making $35,000 per year are considered “cost-burdened.” Mary Melton with the Missoula Housing Authority said that even Missoulians with median incomes are having to move out of Missoula to afford to buy a house.

"Many are living pay check to pay check, struggling to afford essentials," she told the crowd gathered in the United Methodist Church basement. "Even people closer to the median income of $42,389 are paying too much for housing and finding themselves having to move out of Missoula to find housing.

"The ability to afford to live in Missoula is hanging in the balance."

The Missoulian reported in November that housing prices in the urban area were on pace to set the largest annual spike in more than a decade. At that time, the median sales price of all homes sold in the urban area between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31, 2018, was a record $290,900.

Zillow reported this week that the median home value in Missoula now sits at $298,800, which is an increase of 11.5 percent during the past year, and predicts values to increase another 2.4 percent within the next year.

“Bottom line, there are major economic shifts that are underway within our community,” Dunning said.

The MIC urges the city to create a “landlord liaison” position to help people through the rental process, and work to reduce rental application fees by creating a streamlined credit score and background check process for rental applications.

In addition, the MIC suggests working with landlords to create a rent guarantee pool or other approaches to improve access to housing for people with criminal backgrounds and “others who might not otherwise be considered as potential tenants,” according to their presentation material.

A second area of interest involves making a larger portion of the housing stock permanently affordable. Currently, Missoula has rental properties that use federal programs and are required to be kept low-income. The city also has homes where the land is held by a nonprofit organization, which limits the increase in the re-sale price to ensure the next low- or moderate-income homebuyers can afford them.

In addition, the city has trailer parks that have formed cooperatives to purchase the land to eliminate the risk of future sales or redevelopment.

“Permanent affordability is a way to take our limited resources and put them to work on projects that will remain affordable long-term,” the group wrote. “When city land and dollars are put toward housing, projects that are permanently affordable should be prioritized.”

The third goal is to change land use codes, policy and zoning to encourage development that is diverse but equitable across neighborhoods. That may include more accessory dwelling units, eliminating height restrictions to allow taller structures, and possibly curtailing parking and large set-back requirements.

“And we will have to make difficult decisions about how to balance encouraging new development with preserving existing affordable homes and ensuring development of affordable homes,” the group wrote in its presentation. “Pro-active rezoning should be pursued, and the elimination of zoning that allows for only one home per lot should be explored and considered.

“These efforts should be tempered with the knowledge that increasing density alone will not ensure affordability and should be done in tandem with other affordability measures.”

They also want the city to explore developing a “Missoula Housing Trust Fund” using public dollars. That fund would prioritize permanent affordable housing,  preservation and rehabilitation of existing affordable units, first-time home buyers’ assistance and housing for former inmates.

Last, they encourage continued growth of a network of volunteers committed to pairing individuals with affordable housing. Those include builders, developers, real estate agents and landlords.

But if Missoula wants to “truly move the needle” and implement a plan that creates enough access to affordable homes for all members of the community, the city needs “a strong and powerful network of average citizens who are earnestly involved in leading the effort for home ownership and rental market opportunities that are reasonable for all of our citizens,” Melton said.

“This means not only giving our input and opinions to experts but being at the table on our own behalf and reaching further to those who may not yet have a seat at the table,” she said, adding that some necessary policies, such as changing zoning density, are going to need strong public will to implement, and our city officials are going to need public support.

"We need to seize this moment to commit to being involved and turn out when it really matters."

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