This isn't your catchy, routine, fit on a bumper-sticker priority, but it may be what I am most excited to explore. I want to be clear right up front that I do NOT support a no-strings-attached giveaway to developers nor am I advocating for significant new funds but rather better focusing the funds we already use through programs like Tax Increment Financing and Urban Renewal Projects. As we all know, in housing and other areas, we have serious challenges and I believe these challenges won't be solved by public investment or private ingenuity alone. Time and again, the Missoula community has shown a willingness to invest public money in ways that enrich the community and fill basic needs through voter-approved bonds to Tax Increment Financing grants and Urban Renewal projects. I think we have a tremendous opportunity to leverage some of these public investments to assure more long-term community benefits or to remove some risks from our private sector partners in exchange for more sustainable benefits, such as in the area of affordable housing. If we are bold in our thinking, we can help move Missoula forward.

There can be an initial hesitation when people begin talking about public-private partnerships. To be clear, when I say I am an advocate and a supporter of these agreements, I am not simply advocating for government investment with no return or say in a project. However, especially in the area of housing and infrastructure development, there are opportunities to match community needs with partners willing to collaborate to meet that public good. 

If we can be more strategic when deploying those public funds we may be able to leverage returns. Some possible ideas include:

  • Public investment in infrastructure in exchange for homes that maintain their initial percentage below the current market rate each time they transfer ownership by tying them to an affordability index with a deed restriction. A modified version of a shared-equity program.
  • Upfront public investments in infrastructure that is paid back in a "pay-as-you-sell" program in exchange for more lots released per phase of a subdivision or more direct city input on a neighborhood design, or even a percentage set aside as permanently affordable (incentivizing this rather than mandating it will create more inventory, see the next point).
  • Offering incentives such as density bonuses or other options in exchange for a percentage to be permanently affordable through means such as the deed restriction idea above or possibly partner with a local organization that already has a program in place. This would also work for market-rate housing in some scenarios. The Austin S.M.A.R.T. program is just one example that we can study for ideas. While not perfect and not 100% compatible with Montana regulations, this program is attractive because it offers incentives that help low-income AND moderate-income home seekers in a way some other programs do not. It is important to note that I do not think all aspects of the S.M.A.R.T. program are a fit for our community. 
  • Partner with local organizations to provide additional funds or resources for Down Payment Assistance programs which are paid back into a fund for future repeat uses. 
  • Expedited permitting process in exchange for one or more of the benefits outlined above. 

These are just ideas to start a discussion. With so many intelligent Missoulians working on these issues every day, there will no doubt be modifications and additions or emphasis on mechanisms already in place. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and contributions.