Put simply, people who work in Missoula ought to be able to live in Missoula. If we don’t figure this out soon, Missoula will become unrecognizable. Our community and region is experiencing incredible population growth, and adequate planning is imperative to absorb that change. We need a vision for how Missoula can continue being an economic and cultural engine in the Northern Rockies without losing its unique character. We also have an obligation to ensure that we are providing housing opportunities for all so that Missoula fulfills the promise of equity and inclusion that the generation before us worked so hard for. We must build housing to meet population growth and do so with inventory across the spectrum of housing needs both for rent and for sale. Other measures, while important, are simply a stopgap. We cannot continue to fall further behind our needs each year. Solutions must stretch from the unhoused to the over-housed creating healthy turnover and downsizing activity and encouraging equitable opportunities that respect people’s health, safety, and dignity. We are in a crisis and need to respond accordingly to create an equitable protection of our health and safety.
I am very familiar with the negative impacts the low-inventory, high-cost housing market has on the working women and men of our community, as well as those on a fixed income, and I recognize how property taxes impact family budgets each month. I support environmentally-responsible development that is equitable, sustainable, and that preserves Missoula’s beauty and unique character while also acknowledging that Missoula is growing. If we don’t meet that challenge with a realistic understanding of what the current situation is in our community, we will fail to make responsible decisions. Helping even one person is always noble, but we can’t let partial solutions give a false sense of success. If we don’t address the problems across the spectrum, the potential impacts can be much worse. I believe there is tremendous opportunity for public-private partnerships in the housing sector that can leverage proportional public investments and create sustainable affordability in those projects.
Currently, residents in Missoula are struggling to find housing that fits their needs, and when they do they are encountering strong competition be it renters, first-time home buyers, those upsizing, and those looking to downsize. It is crucial we find and develop housing opportunities for those making below the median income as these can be some of the most pressing emergent needs. If done right some of these programs can even offer opportunities for homeownership where the opportunity might otherwise not be available. Missoula has many great organizations, both public and private, who have made this their mission every day and make such a tremendous difference. With more backing and more support, these organizations can have even more of an impact.
Some may ask why it is important to focus on the other sectors such as those upsizing and downsizing because they are traditionally market-rate. The reality is that for over a decade we have not been developing enough housing ownership opportunities in relation to our population growth. This is a trend that is common across the country as has many factors such as less builders after the Great Recession and banks being more risk-averse to finance large-scale housing projects that allow for better community planning and predictability. This has led to declining inventory even before the pandemic-fueled crisis. In low inventory markets, there are limited options for those looking to downsize so they will often stay put, which does not open their current, larger homes for a growing family. If those families can't upsize, then their homes don't open for first-time, market-rate home buyers thus perpetuating a crisis cycle. We need to assure we have places to live for all who reside in our community and we must acknowledge this involves new construction as well because no one has to move out of a new house for it to be available for a new occupant.
We can achieve success in this area by improving efficiencies in our housing development process, something I believe the City of Missoula is committed to with the recent comencement of a long-term complete regulatory code reform. Our zoning also needs to be modernized to meet current community goals and take advantage of modern building opportunities.
Finally, I think we can better leverage our public investments with public-private partnerships that incentivize affordable development and protect the affordability of a house beyond the first transaction for all future buyers. As an example, in the last several years Missoula has invested Tax Increment Financing money to provide infrastructure for a small housing development which in theory (and practice) lead to sales prices below market rates at the time. This provided a fantastic opportunity for the first home buyers who purchased these homes. However, if we get creative with these agreements, we can allow the buyers to realize the market appreciation from their purchase price while also assuring that the homes always maintain that initial percentage below market rates. I do not believe we should set price caps on developments with no public investment or support, but in situations where the public invests or provides value beyond monetary measure, we should work together to find solutions that do not overly restrict the sales but protect our initial goals.
This is just one example of conversations I feel we should be having to address housing needs in Missoula. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas as well.
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