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Housing income in Missoula

About 9.2% of all households in Missoula make less than $10,000 per year or less.

Last week Missoulians learned that the median sales price for a home in the city has topped $300,000. For the first six months of the year, according to data collected by Windermere Real Estate, the median sales price was $305,500 — an increase of more than $15,000 from 2018.

As housing prices continue to rise at a steady pace, the slower incline in average wages in Missoula becomes more worrisome — and the need for affordable housing more acute. A new report released this month by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana shows a growing gap between the median incomes of homeowners, which have increased by 17.5% a year, and renters, whose incomes have seen a yearly decrease of 4.5%.

As the gap between wealthy and poor Missoulians widens, and the supply of available homes shrinks, the question remains: What to do about it?

Missoula’s new housing policy offers a number of solutions, and has been met with general support from the public and local government leaders. But it’s relatively easy to support a general set of recommendations. The more difficult part comes when it’s time to actually implement them.

Last week, some City Council members objected to the proposed location of a new affordable housing complex that would include 39 units specifically geared toward those age 55 and older. A single buyer would qualify with an income of $29,580, as would a couple making less than $33,840 a year. The project at 2400 Ninth St. W. would fill a vacant property just two blocks away from Reserve Street.

Truly embracing affordable housing solutions means embracing a greater degree of infill, as open land becomes scarcer and developers look to keep prices affordable by building closer to urban infrastructure and amenities. It also means working with neighbors to ensure new housing is a good fit with existing homes. It’s likely that property owners in affected neighborhoods will have concerns about increased traffic and other impacts, and these concerns should absolutely be shared with developers.

By the same token, the practical needs of developers must be heard as well. City councilors might wish they would build affordable housing in certain parts of the city, but market demands and municipal zoning laws both take priority over wishful thinking.

As the developer in this case, Alex Burkhalter of Housing Solutions, described the current situation: “Finding land to build affordable housing because of land costs is nearly impossible. I felt like this was a unicorn site because it’s there, it’s vacant and the price allows us to do the project. And it’s in an area identified in the city’s growth policy for higher-density housing. And we’re pursuing this project in alignment with the recently adopted housing policy.”

Members of City Council who truly want to see Missoula add to its short supply of affordable housing would do better to offer assistance in overcoming any neighborhood challenges, rather than simply objecting to the location of a project outright.

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