Small homes from the Bakken eyed as solution to Missoula’s high housing costs

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The kitchen inside one of the small homes is fully furnished. (Photo courtesy of Homeword)

By Martin Kidston

Nearly a dozen unused “little houses” initially destined for the Bakken oilfields have found their way to Missoula and could be used in novel ways to help address the city’s housing shortage.

While the homes remain stored on city property and have not yet been deployed for occupancy, the concept behind small modular housing has local officials and housing advocates talking about new ways of solving an ongoing issue.

“It’s a unique opportunity,” said Andrea Davis, executive director of Homeword. “These are small modular homes – they’re bigger than tiny houses. There’s an opportunity to bring over more.”

An investment company originally purchased the homes from a Midwestern manufacturer. The homes were delivered to Sidney to accommodate the Bakken workforce boom. But the oil activity decreased, and with it the need for workforce housing.

With unused modular homes on its hands, the investment company sought organizations that could use the little homes as affordable housing. The Bozeman branch of the Human Resources Development Council bought 50 of them.

“In conversations with us, they realized they would be able to deploy some to this area,” said Davis. “We were interested in coming up with a solution. We’ve acquired 10 of them.”

The homes are currently being stored on city property while Homeword, along with the city’s new office of Housing and Community Development, explore ways to deploy the homes locally. What shape that will take hasn’t been determined, though Davis said all options remain on the table.

“We don’t know if they’ll be rentals or home ownership, but we’re looking at both,” she said. “We’re looking at different opportunities with different partners to see how this might address Missoula’s wide range of housing needs.”

Given the units’ intended purpose of housing workers in the oil fields, they come fully furnished, all the way down to the utensils. Five of the units offer 450 square feet and one bedroom while the other five offer 550 square feet and two bedrooms.

“Housing is needed and it’s time to get creative,” said Davis. “We’re looking at these homes being attainable. I don’t know what income targets they’ll hit yet.”

During a recent joint meeting with city and county officials, along with University of Montana administrators, the need for safe and affordable housing surfaced as one of the afternoon’s topics.

Ward 5 council member Julie Armstrong and Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler both believe the “little homes” could offer a solution to the city’s housing shortage, along with its struggle with housing costs.

“Having these 10, if not five more, we can try to solve some of these things,” said Marler. “There’s some opportunities here to learn something.”

It remains unknown if the units will be sold as workforce housing or rented in perpetuity at an affordable rate. Under one concept, two small homes could be placed on a single city lot.

Davis said Homeword is currently looking for parcels of land that are appropriately zoned.housing

“We’re also working with architectural firms to find a low cost but good solution to some elevation plans, so they fit within neighborhoods,” said Davis. “There are folks who really want small units. They’re good quality. We’re looking at placing them on foundations. Whether that’s a slab or a basement, that’s all yet to be explored.”

According to the Missoula Organization of Realtors and its 2016 report, housing prices across the city ticked up in nearly all categories over the prior year.

Since March, when the report was released, the median sales price of a home in the Missoula area has increased another 4 percent to roughly $249,000. That’s up from just $209,700 four years ago.

While housing prices climb, wages have not. The median household income for single Missoula worker remains locked at around $44,000. One would need an income of roughly $80,000 to afford a median-priced home in the city under conventional loan standards, according to MOR.

As the need for affordable housing continues to climb, local officials and nonprofits are eyeing a number of solutions. Missoula College could be called upon to build small modular homes as part of an educational training program, while the private sector could also step in to address the shortage in a for-profit model.

“Modular construction is an interesting option for us to be looking at in general as we look at adding to our housing stock,” said Davis. “This opportunity might be a nice way to partner with Missoula College in terms of being able to come up with some good architectural solutions.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com