Patience: Missoula’s long-sought housing policy nears public debut

Rent signs hang on an apartment in Missoula. The City Council will receive the recommendations of the Housing Policy Steering Committee by March and will consider implementing them as part of a larger housing solution. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Nearly two years after its creation, the Housing Policy Steering Committee is nearing the end of its journey and will bring its recommendations to the Missoula City Council next spring.

Until then, the committee’s proposals will remain under wraps, raising the anticipation around what Missoula’s first-ever housing policy might look at, and how it will address what’s emerging as a stubborn national challenge – affordability.

“We’re hesitant to share those publicly until the technical working groups have really worked through them, and until the housing policy leadership team has endorsed them,” said Eran Pehan, director of the Office on Housing and Community Development. “We’d like to produce the recommendations in whole to the council.”

At the direction of Mayor John Engen, the steering committee launched the first phase of its work in 2017, and offered early recommendations to the City Council in August.

Since then, five technical working groups have drafted policies around a list of proposals, from ways to reduce regulatory hurdles to building a housing trust fund. Those recommendations are expected by late February or early March.

“We deeply feel the urgency around this work, but we’re also deeply committed to getting this right,” Pehan said. “We feel an inclusive process will make sure we do that.”

The five technical working groups include public outreach, regulation and code, and creating affordable housing. The groups also are working on innovation and capacity building, and ways to generate the funding and revenue needed to carry out any future proposal.

“Housing affects all of us,” said Pehan. “It intersects with almost every other social issue and outcome, from education and health to employment and public safety. It also has a direct impact on our economic health.”

While talk about housing often trickles down to the homeless and the city’s low-income residents, others have pointed to the city’s working class, along with jobs and a living wage.

City Council member Heather Harp said issues around housing affordability aren’t new. Now, she said, it’s a national challenge in need of creative solutions, including the creation of good-paying jobs.

“The other half of the equation is that we have to encourage higher wages,” Harp said. “That’s the other part of this. We all have our part to play in this. When it comes down to wages, every one of us is responsible for that.”

While the factors that led to a constrained housing market are complex and market-driven, the impacts aren’t hard to see. By and large, local wages haven’t kept pace with the rapidly rising cost of housing, leaving many behind.

That has forced families to spend a large portion of their income on housing, leaving less for basic needs. That too carries negative consequences for the wider economy.

“I would argue there’s not a place in the county where people want to live that’s not dealing with this issue to some degree,” said Councilman Bryan von Lossberg. “You can open virtually any paper or publication and read about it, or hear it on the radio.”

In August, the initial recommendations offered to the City Council hit on a wide range of possibilities, from reducing the regulations and fees that can drive up development costs, to creating a housing trust fund. Talk of a voter bond to create affordable housing made an appearance, as did a stronger partnership between the public and private sector.

Other cities faced with a housing crisis have considered their own ways to address the problem, from taxing job-creating corporations – a move some see as counter-productive – to building mass housing near public transit stops.

Pehan said the steering committee has researched other communities while crafting a local proposal. It’s also developing a framework to track progress once Missoula does adopt a policy.

“We’re asking the community to really invest in a housing solution, and the city to really invest in a housing solution,” Pehan said. “We need to be able to show that outcomes will come as a result of that investment.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at martin@missoulacurrent.com