With the long-awaited release last week of a document from the Office of Housing and Community Development, Missoula now holds a comprehensive housing policy in its collective hands. Next, city leaders must muster the will to make some hard decisions and begin working through the 95-page policy’s list of recommended actions.
Missoula’s City Councilors have already taken the first steps in this painstaking process, having steeped themselves in seas of detailed information about the city’s current needs, projected growth, development trends and planning policy over untold hours of meetings with private developers, city planners and local housing experts.
They should be fully prepared now to lead a community conversation on the future of Missoula housing. This important conversation, while ongoing, must result in prompt, meaningful action. The city must follow up with regular public progress reports — which is also recommended in the policy, titled “A place to call home: Meeting Missoula’s housing needs.” Most urgently, Missoula must come together to agree on a plan that will ensure the homeless are not left out in the cold this next winter.
That’s exactly what happened last winter when the Union Gospel Mission, which had provided shelter for up to 40 homeless individuals on nights when the Poverello Center reached capacity, was informed by the Missoula Fire Department that it was in violation of a city ordinance mandating 350 feet of distance between homeless shelters and residences. Apparently caught flat-footed by their own policy, councilors approved an emergency ordinance allowing the Salvation Army to waive city requirements and open a temporary warming center.
However, the Salvation Army first needed to raise $50,000, and Missoula’s Office of Housing and Community Development was not in a position to contribute. Fortunately, generous Missoulians stepped up to meet the financial need, and the secondary shelter successfully kept dozens of homeless people safe during the coldest nights of the year.
The emergency ordinance thoughtfully directs the city to look into shelter options for future winters. That likely will mean reviewing municipal ordinances to remove any undue obstacles for those organizations willing to provide this essential community service, and it may mean formalizing – and funding – a temporary shelter at the Salvation Army or elsewhere. In any case, this discussion cannot be kicked down the calendar into next winter; a firm plan needs to be in place well before the next cold snap.
Too much mere lip service has been paid to Missoula’s housing affordability hurdles for too long. Over the past 10 years housing prices have increased by nearly 40%, far outpacing residential development and wage growth. Nearly half the people who live in Missoula rent their homes, and nearly half of these renters are spending more than 30% of their take-home pay on housing. Too many Missoula residents lack secure, affordable housing, putting them at risk of homelessness, and the problem is only getting worse.
Three years ago, Missoula created the Office of Housing and Community Development. In 2017, the city undertook an important housing market analysis examining gaps and needs. In 2018, Mayor John Engen appointed a Housing Policy Steering Committee, which released its final recommendations later that same year. Five Technical Working Groups then took up those recommendations, working over the course of several months to develop them into policy proposals.
With those proposals finally in hand, it’s time for city leaders to make some real decisions, followed by real action. The recommendations in the new housing policy provide a clear path forward, complete with a draft ordinance to establish an affordable housing trust fund. Missoulians should take the time to scrutinize these options and be ready to weigh in with their support. The policy can be found on the City of Missoula’s website or attached to this editorial online at Missoulian.com.
Some of these recommendations ask Missoula to put its money where its mouth is. The policy offers several different ways for the public to provide financial support for housing services, such as tapping into the general fund, raising mill levies, creating a special district devoted to housing needs, or asking voters to approve a general obligation bond.
A little public investment can go a long way. Earlier this month, for example, a City Council committee gave initial approval to about $633,000 in federal grants and loans for six affordable housing projects that would create 200 homes for low-income families. A portion of the money would also be used to provide emergency shelter for homeless families, help an estimated 1,300 individuals in the local coordinated entry system secure stable housing, and provide housing education and counseling to another 1,000 people.
These projects, while significant and sorely needed, are still only a drop in the bucket compared to Missoula’s projected housing growth. Last week, the City Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee was presented with a document called "Our Missoula Development Guide: Looking Forward” that estimates Missoula County add 6,500 new residential units over the next 10 years. Currently, only about 4,300 lots are considered “highly suitable” for development.
Fortunately, the city is studying the development potential of different neighborhoods, particularly those on the outskirts of town. The new housing policy recommends a zoning audit to determine “how affordability is distributed geographically with the goal of increasing the amount and geographic distribution of land appropriately zoned to support affordable housing development."
As more housing is developed, the city will get a boost to its revenues that should result in some tax relief for property owners. But all Missoulians, no matter their housing status, have a stake in where and how these homes are built. And all Missoulians have a voice in setting the city’s new housing policy.
The next open house is set for May 30, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., in City Council chambers at 140 W. Pine St. It will be followed by a second opportunity for public comment the evening of June 4 at Russell School.