I began following the city’s efforts to solve our affordable housing crisis last February when I attended a meeting of the mayor’s policy steering committee.

Since that time, I have continued to participate as a member of the Missoula Home Coalition, and as a board member of Big Sky 55, a new statewide organization with a keen interest in the problem.

Now that the mayor’s committee has presented its recommendations to the public and the city council, many aspects of our dilemma have become clear. I’ll focus on just a few of them.

First: The cost of housing in our community is beyond the reach of many who work here, not only for those in the hospitality and service industries, but also for single-income/single-parent teachers and other professionals. We have a crisis right now, here in Missoula.

At great cost to themselves, to the environment and to the quality of our community, these Missoulians are forced to look for housing that is far from their place of employment. This adds to the pollution in our valley. It adds to the carbon imprint of Missoula. It adds commuting time to the effective hours of employment, depriving children of parenting. And it deprives our community of a measure of civic involvement from these workers that would enrich our civic discourse. They simply don’t have the time to participate.

The magnitude of this crisis is confirmed by a study commissioned by the Missoula Organization of Realtors. The report finds that 41% of Missoula households pay over 30% of their income for housing. It concludes that “Missoula is reaching a critical moment around affordability and dramatic increases to affordable housing need to occur urgently.”

Second: Many of the proposals from the mayor’s Housing Policy Steering Committee will, if effective, have an impact that will be apparent over years, but will not have the immediate impact that the Realtors’ report states is so urgently needed. I am thinking in particular of the recommendations for regulatory relief to spur more construction in the housing market.

Third: The single recommendation that could be used to promptly add to the inventory of affordable housing is the creation of an “Affordable Housing Trust Fund.” With the stroke of a pen, the City can create such a fund, immediately provide assets for the fund and direct the use of those assets to begin construction of affordable housing units. One particularly attractive asset that the city has just acquired is the old library property. Through the generosity of the Payne family, this property now belongs to the city and the Payne family left it to the good judgment of the city to decide how best to dedicate the property to the public good. It is hard to imagine a more appropriate public good than the creation of more affordable homes.

An additional benefit of this approach is the fact that the funding of the trust would not initially come from a bond that would, in an unfortunate irony, add to the cost of homeownership. Our community has been generous in approving bonds for schools, playing fields and open spaces. But some are beginning to have bond “fatigue” as they note the increases in their real property taxes. Income-limited homeowners should not be called upon to bear the cost of providing affordable homes for others. Funding the trust from existing city assets eliminates this concern.

We should all encourage our City Council representatives to support the mayor’s housing policy recommendations. At the same time, we should urge the city to address the problem dramatically and promptly with the creation and funding of the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

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Jon Ellingson was majority leader of the Montana Senate from 2005-2007, a state legislator from 1995-2007 and taught a MOLLI course at the University of Montana in 2019 titled "Human Dignity, Inequality and the Culture Wars." He is an attorney in Missoula. 

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