Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Creating affordable housing without subsidies is growing increasingly difficult in Missoula and across the state, and some developers are looking to provide a blend of housing types to touch on a wider range of price points.

The definition of affordable itself remains a moving target.

“Affordability is really challenging,” said Allison Mouch with Orion Planning and Design. “We've talked about what that looks like, particularly as it relates to Missoula. Where that conversation led was thinking about a meaningful mix of housing as opposed to a specific dollar figure, or an amount that may not reflect the shifting conditions in Missoula, because they have changed so quickly.”

Mouch is representing a subdivision proposed for Lower Miller Creek, and affordability is a concept the developers hope to pin down. But subsidies in Montana are limited and the cost of land, materials and labor continue to rise, making affordable housing an elusive target.

As a result, Mouch said the project isn't eyeing a set dollar figure or targeted income but rather, it's striving to deliver a blend of housing types that cater to a wider range of incomes. As proposed, the project includes a senior living center, a handful of single-family homes, and duplexes and townhomes.

“What we've seen in other places in the state and across the nation is that providing a greater variety of housing, particularly when you're talking about market rates, is effective when you don't necessarily have an inclusivity ordinance for housing affordability,” Mouch said. “That tool was removed from our toolbox during the last legislative session, so we're a bit hamstrung right now.”

The project headed by Mouch isn't the only one in Missoula that's chasing affordability. The City of Missoula has contracted with Ravara Development LLC to deliver roughly 70 units of deed-restricted housing on three acres of land off Scott Street.

Infrastructure work is set to begin later this year, but the price-point for condos and townhomes hasn't been pinned down.

“Architectural plans for the owner-occupied townhomes and condos has progressed to the point that construction pricing is occurring,” said MRA Director Ellen Buchanan. “We're starting to understand the relationship of construction costs to sales price for the income-qualified workforce housing. Ravara is continuing to refine construction pricing, sale price points and income mix.”

In some recent projects, the city has required private developers to including income-restricted housing in exchange for right-of-way or other requests.

In one case, the Reed condominium project near downtown Missoula was required to make 20% of its housing units affordable. That agreement resulted in eight deed-restricted units that are set to be offered to qualified buyers on a lottery bases.

As required by the city, the price of those eight units cannot exceed 120% of the area median income. Based on those figures, each deed-restricted unit can sell for no more than $302,000.

Dori Gilels, a member of the Consolidated Planning Board in Missoula, has urged developers to reach out to the city and its Affordable Housing Trust Fund as a possible tool to subsidize affordability.

But the trust fund has limited funding and tapping it requires a competitive application process. The city hopes to grow the fund as it sells city-owned properties for development, including Scott Street and land on West Broadway.

“Something I've been advocating for is better integration of attainable hosing, particularly for low-income individuals, that are mixed into developments rather than whole developments dedicated to it,” said Gilels. “We do have a trust fund and there are resources. There may be some subsidies available to support the dedication of some units to affordable housing.”