Women Voters to explore costs, financing, placement of Missoula housing in workshops

The Scott Street Village affordable housing development broke ground several years ago. (Missoula Current file photo)

The League of Women Voters in Missoula will play a lead role over the coming weeks in spearheading what its president described as one of the biggest issues facing the city now and in coming decades.

Where will local builders place thousands of new units of housing, and how can the city help ensure a portion of those homes are considered affordable, at least when compared to the median income?

“We all know how valuable it is to have a roof over our heads,” said Missoula City Council member Heather Harp. “It’s the No. 1 issue for all of us. To have this organization step forward to lead this community wide conversation is critical.”

This Wednesday, the League of Women Voters will host its first workshop to explore ways to finance housing. Nancy Lifer, the organization’s co-president, described it as an entry-level discussion on the cost of building and ways to fund it.

In its September report on market activity across the urban area, the Missoula Organization of Realtors placed the median price of a home at $330,250. That’s up from $288,622 reported last September.

For the 2019 calendar year, the median price sits at $314,000, up from $297,000 last year.

“We have four people lined up to walk us through the concepts on how we use resources to bring down the cost of housing in different ways and forms,” Lifer said. “How do you finance housing to make it more affordable, and where do you put it moving forward?”

That latter issue has been contentious in recent months, with several housing projects facing opposition from neighborhoods. Even a proposed affordable senior housing project has hit a potential snag, with one City Council member saying, “I just don’t know if this is the right place for this building.”

Local housing experts believe the city will need roughly 650 new units each year to keep pace with Missoula’s modest population growth of 1.5%. If the city wants to increase inventory as a tool to drive down costs, it will need roughly 700 new units each year.

The League of Women Voters plans to address the topic in a November workshop.

“Our exercise for the evening will be to summarize the next 20 years, both in terms of how much housing we need to have and what kind of incomes people are going to likely have,” said Lifer.

The workshop will use a hypothetical neighborhood as a starting point – one that resembles many Missoula neighborhoods. It has houses on big lots and small, a grocery store, streets of varying width, a box store and a floodplain.

It won’t be up to participants to decide whether housing is appropriate or not, but rather where they will put it.

“We’ll draw in where they would locate an additional 60 units,” said Lifer. “That’s proportionally the share of new units that would go into this neighborhood based on how many residents are there now and looking forward with what the city will need.”

Several neighborhoods across Missoula are being considered for a variety of housing developments. A project on 57 acres is proposed off Mullan Road, and 64 units are proposed for several acres in the South Hills.

Areas of Scott Street are expected to develop with a variety of housing types, and vast parking lots and vacant fields around Southgate Mall have been proposed for housing in past years. Only the Rattlesnake and University District neighborhoods remain untouched by such proposals.

“Where can we put these different types of housing to fit different income levels?” Lifer said. “Our intention is to get a handle on how that works, put it together as a kit, and make it available to groups in the community who are grappling with this issue themselves. This would be an interesting tool for neighborhood councils to sit down and work with as well.”

The first workshop on financing in set for this Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Missoula Public Library. The second workshop on mapping and location is scheduled for Nov. 6.

“It’s an important conversation we need to be having in many areas so we can get the citizens involved in and understanding these issues better,” said council member Julie Merritt. “It’s easy to feel that all the decisions the city is making just happen to people.”