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Council member questions Missoula Organization of Realtors’ new housing survey

Sweetgrass Commons opened earlier this year as an affordable housing project located near downtown Missoula. (Missoula Current)

A member of the Missoula City Council is taking aim at a housing survey contracted by the Missoula Organization of Realtors, saying the survey’s methodology will produce “junk data” that will do little to help the city make policy decisions around housing.

If the survey and the findings of its associated study come into doubt, it could delay community-wide efforts to address the city’s cost of housing and ways to make it more affordable.

In an email exchange that started Sunday and continued into Monday, Ward 4 council member John DiBari said the survey, initiated in August by the Missoula Organization of Realtors, would provide the council no ability to make “valid inferences or draw valid conclusions” regarding the city’s larger housing challenges.

“It is too bad the results of this effort will not be helpful for that purpose,” DiBari wrote. “It is also too bad that good efforts to address housing issues by many in the community will have no additional information to help council and other community leaders make progress towards that goal.”

In August, the Missoula Organization of Realtors and its partners contracted Werwrath Associates, a community development consultant, to conduct a survey as part of a larger study known as “Making Missoula Home: A Path to Attainable Housing.”

At the time, Sam Sill, public affairs director for MOR, said the survey sought to get a sense from area residents regarding their housing experiences. He said the survey was intended to serve as a complement to Werwrath’s larger study.

Daniel Werwrath reiterated those sentiments in his response to DiBari, saying the survey will only serve as a small part in a larger assessment.

“It is not meant to be indicative of anything more than a snapshot of the current climate and perceptions among the development community,” said Werwrath. “This serves primarily as a guide for us in our investigations and for you as elected leaders to know how the development community sees the issues.”

On Tuesday, DiBari said he remains concerned over what he sees as the survey’s lack of scientific validity. He said the City Council often receives questionable data that does little to help it make informed policy decisions.

“My response to MOR’s letter is that this is another example where the group of people they’re requesting information from is cherry picked, and it’s a small group of people,” DiBari said. “You can’t take that information and draw any broader inferences from it.”

The latest issue surrounding the survey and the pending Making Missoula Home study isn’t the first time the City Council and MOR have clashed when it comes to data.

Last September, MOR presented the council with a survey conducted by American Strategies, a Washington, D.C., polling firm, that offered policy solutions intended to help the city address housing affordability.

Among them, the recommendations included a reduction in fees on buildings and developers, and providing incentives to developers. Tax breaks for developers who build affordable housing were also recommended.

Members of the council viewed the results with both intrigue and skepticism, and questioned the survey’s methodology. DiBari said the same questions now linger in MOR’s newest survey.

“MOR and the Missoula Building Industry Association have tried to put information out before that’s not statistically valid,” DiBari said. “I don’t blame them – they’re advocacy organizations. But it’s incumbent on the consultant and the two advocacy organizations to illustrate that their methods are foolproof and totally robust so we can move forward with what we’re trying to do.”

Sill directed his organization’s response to Werwrath’s email reply to DiBari.

In that reply, Werwrath said his consulting team brings no preconceived agenda to the process but only looks to provide ways to help the city address affordable housing. The consultant has produced similar studies in other communities, including Bozeman.

“Our final report and recommendations will be based on opportunities that result from over 40 interviews of diverse stakeholders, a detailed analysis of your land-use codes, analysis of building cost data, detailed analysis of community demographic data (and) a consumer housing survey, all synthesized in the context of a housing affordability analysis,” said Werwrath. “There will be a number of recommendations, some of which may be popular (or unpopular) with the various stakeholders in this process.”

The city’s housing challenges, from a lack of inventory to rising costs, have been key in community discussions over the past two years. The Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana has identified the city’s cost of housing as a potential barrier to economic growth.

The issue has also played as a central theme in this year’s race for mayor. And while DiBari has served as the lone voice in questioning the new survey’s scope and methodology, he said he isn’t alone in his concerns.

“I and my colleagues plan to do our job, and I suspect you plan to do yours, in a way that best serves the citizens of Missoula,” DiBari told Werwrath in his latest response. “My mind is open. As any good scientist will attest, you will have to make a convincing case, otherwise it is just garbage in – garbage out.”