Missoula’s housing office reports progress on policy as inventory issues mount

Construction on Scott Street Village, a workforce housing development in Missoula. (Missoula Current file photo)

The city office charged with finding solutions to affordable housing in Missoula expects to have the first phase of its policy work completed by spring, moving the process closer to regulatory recommendations and implementation.

Erin Pehan, director of the Office of Housing and Community Development, said Wednesday the process took a step forward this week with the release of Making Missoula Home – a 159-page study of housing across the city, including demographics and best practices to address affordability.

“It really relayed what we’re hearing in terms of demographics and what we’re focusing on in Phase One of our housing policy,” said Pehan. “We hope to be wrapping up Phase One in May, followed by the technical aspects leading to implementation of an actionable housing policy.”

Missoula Mayor John Engen created the Office of Housing and Community Development in 2015 to focus more strategically on housing solutions. Pehan said that effort is well under way and includes experts from a number of sectors, from real estate, builders and lenders to higher education and transportation.

Addressing members of the City Council, Pehan said the effort is also working closely with city staff, including Development Services and the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, to ensure that any future housing policy complements plans already in place.

“It’s really important to us that this policy not exist in a vacuum,” Pehan said. “At at the end of the day, we want a policy that’s actionable, which means we need everyone at the table from day one.”

Pehan said the process will unfold in three phases, including Making Missoula Home, which the Missoula Organization of Realtors unveiled on Tuesday.

The second phase will include a more technical review, including recommendations regarding regulations, incentives and the city’s role in administering a housing policy.

The third phase will result in formal recommendations and adoption by the City Council.

“We’re having conversations about the strategic use of our local resources and how we bring new revenue sources to the table,” Pehan said. “We know we need to incentivize affordable development, and we need to have the tools to do that.”

Making Missoula Home presented a long list of demographics and statistics surrounding the rising cost of housing in the city and potential ways to address the trend. The median price of a home currently sits at $270,000, which would require an annual income of $70,000.

Such wages aren’t readily available in Missoula, resulting in a disconnect that economists say could jeopardize the city’s economic future. If not addressed, some fear Missoula could evolve into a resort town supported by low-paying jobs in the service industry.

“There’s some pent-up demand to get to work on this, and I think we’re ready,” said council member Gwen Jones. “This truly could change the nature of Missoula if we don’t figure out how to address it. We’re getting into some different territory.”

But the issue isn’t easily solved, as evidenced by the number of factors and policies presented in Making Missoula Home. The fixes range from proactive zoning and the development of targeted infrastructure to easing regulations and clarifying the city’s annexation strategies.

“Nobody is out to purposefully make housing harder to get for anybody,” said council member John DiBari. “We’re all working toward a goal of community improvement. But it’s good to remind ourselves there’s a lot of dimensions to this, not just the idea of affordability.”