Affordable housing

The 2018 Making Missoula Home report from the Missoula Organization of Realtors states that over 30 percent of households in Missoula County in 2017 were “cost burdened” by their housing costs. And rent and housing prices have gone up since 2017.

What does it mean to be “cost-burdened?” What does is mean when a third of Missoula households — families behind one in three front doors — struggle to keep a roof over their heads? How much income does a young family need these days to purchase a starter home? Why do these things matter?

Let’s look at renters first. Over half of the city’s population is renters. Nearly 70 percent of these renters are paying more of their incomes than they can afford for rent and utilities, leaving them without enough remaining income to cover other basic expenses. Because we are a college town, with many student renters, it is easy to assume the problem primarily affects college students.

The fact is that households of working families, seniors and others also struggle with high rent costs and making ends meet because of those costs. Many are one unexpected bill — a medical emergency or car repair — away from homelessness. Saving for a down payment to own a home is out of the question.

Making Missoula Home also estimates that in 2017, a household of three making $22.81 an hour, 80 percent of area median income, would have a gap of nearly $57,000 between the housing financing they qualify for and the low-end median price of a starter home.

Homeownership for most people is the key to building individual equity and wealth that leads to other opportunities such as starting a business or paying for a college education. Communities also benefit from homeownership. Homeowners bring more stability to neighborhoods and more commitment to communities.

Missoula already has one of the lowest homeownership rates in the state. And if young families can’t move up the housing ladder from renting to owning a home, how will Missoula be impacted?

Is the problem really a crisis? The League of Women Voters Missoula, Homeword and the Missoula Housing Authority are co-sponsoring a free public meeting “Myths and Realities of Housing: The mismatch between incomes and costs in Missoula and what can be done about it.” 

Andrea Davis of Homeword will look at a “budget” for a family of three, line-by-line, and compare expenses and housing costs of the median renter-wage income in Missoula of $11.49/hour.

Jim McGrath and Lori Davidson from the Missoula Housing Authority will break down the current costs of building rental housing and compare these costs to what renters can afford.

Presenters will then do the same for a first-time homebuyer household and the construction costs of new entry-level ownership homes.

The meeting will include a quick overview of programs already in place that address the housing affordability gap of renters and first-time homebuyers and how these programs don’t come close to matching the scale of the problem.

The evening will conclude with a presentation by the City of Missoula’s Housing and Community Development Department on their current project to propose a housing plan to address housing affordability in Missoula, and how citizens can be involved in the planning process.

This nuts and bolts examination of incomes, costs and the shortfall of existing programs will lay out the dimensions of housing affordability in Missoula. The growing consensus is that we have a crisis. The League of Women Voters invites those who have yet to reach that conclusion to join us on March 20.

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Nancy Maxson and Nancy Leifer are co-presidents of the League of Women Voters Missoula. 

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