UM students survey Missoula neighborhoods about affordable housing, record concerns

University of Montana graduate students partnered with the Missoula Housing & Community Development office to canvas local neighborhoods and get feedback about the city’s upcoming housing policy and affordable housing.

The survey, conducted by seven students, asked participants about affordable housing and whether pooling existing city resources, changing development regulations and maintaining existing affordable housing should be part of the city’s housing policy.

“I think it’s really important to get people’s opinions on things that are going to affect them, and there’s a lot of people in the city who don’t have the time or the energy or whatever it is to get involved in public comment or come to City Council meetings,” said Gretchen Neal, one of the UM students who canvassed neighborhoods.

The students were able to survey 226 local residents, adding to the 613-plus Missoulians consulted so far in the housing policy process.

Responses were separated by neighborhood, with a majority of participants from the Northside and Westside, Franklin to the Fort, and River Road areas.

“The students will pull together a report of their findings of this specific canvas and survey process and that will be an attachment to the housing policy recommendations,” said Montana James, grants administrator for the Missoula Housing & Community Development office. “I think it’ll be incredibly important as a reference to City Council. It’ll be an anchoring set of data for them to look at as they’re considering the policy recommendations in whole.”

Specific questions addressed the definition of affordable housing, concerns about the respondent’s own housing situation, local funding for affordable housing or buying land for housing, changing city regulations to make home construction easier, among others.

A majority of respondents supported the recommendations. However, they added a few concerns. Rent and property taxes are too high and wages are too low, many said, and there are trust issues with the city of Missoula. The increasing density of homes in subdivisions was another concern, as was the overall ability for the average Missoula resident to afford a home.

For example, affordable housing is defined as housing that does not cost more than 30 percent of a person’s monthly income. The survey asked if this is a good definition, with about 41 participants saying no.

“Some suggested it should be lower. Some suggested it should be 20 to 25 percent of your monthly income could be a good definition. Some said it doesn’t take into account other expenses, such as child care or medical expenses,” UM student Claire Foley said.

Missoula City Council member Julie Merritt said there should be education about how housing density can be done without making a neighborhood uncomfortable.

“This came up at a recent neighborhood council meeting as well when we talked about what are the important issues to people in the neighborhood and the exact same picture arose. Even people in that neighborhood, they want more affordable housing but they don’t want more density,” Merritt said.

City Council member Mirtha Becerra said she appreciates having the public’s input, along with their concerns and suggestions.

“People assume that a lot of the recommendations and policies that we put in motion aren’t based on just fluff or things that we hear about or anecdotal information. So for me, this is invaluable information that’s going to help all of us make informed decisions. It’s very much in touch with what’s happening on the ground,” Becerra said.

The housing policy, aimed for release later this month, will include an in-depth report based on the canvassing that will be developed in the coming weeks.

Reporter Mari Hall can be contacted via email at mari.hall@missoulacurrent.com.