Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) The city's existing development and zoning codes create barriers to housing diversity and affordability, fail to promote infill and walkable neighborhoods, and are difficult to navigate, planning officials said Wednesday.

The findings, presented to members of City Council, represent what planning officials have deemed a code diagnostic, which provides an overview of the issues hindering progress on a number of city goals related to housing and development.

Over the coming year, the diagnostic will help guide the city's code-reform process and the ultimate creation of a unified development ordinance – a single document that's easy to read and navigate, and will provide greater guidance to both builders and residents.

“It will include innovations aimed at advancing housing supply and affordability through the promotion of walkable, diverse and vibrant neighborhoods,” said Eran Pehan, the city's director of planning and development. “We can't stress enough that this is a paradigm shift in how we regulate growth and development to better achieve our goals in Missoula.”

Among other things, the diagnostic found that today's codes present barriers to housing supply and affordability, infill development, mobility, climate policy, and are simply difficult to navigate.

City planner Ben Brewer said current city codes don't generally allow the same type of development that created some of Missoula's most cherished neighborhoods. Nearly two-thirds of the land zoned for residential use only allows for housing types that stand beyond the reach of what many residents can afford.

“There are individual requirements in our codes that impact housing supply and affordability,” Brewer said, naming such things as parking regulations and allowable densities. “The codes create fewer large homes over more smaller ones.”

Brewer said one key finding in the diagnostic looks to revise zoning standards to reduce barriers to housing production while increasing access to services. It would allow higher densities and encourage smaller homes.

The diagnostic also found that current city codes limit housing diversity, residential infill and “sensitive” mixed-use development, or compatible infill.

“Form standards can be set to allow for an overall increase in the housing units while maintaining a similar scale,” Brewer said. “Middle housing isn't new to Missoula. There are local examples we can draw from.”

Rising costs and development hurdles

The city's push toward code reform comes as housing prices continue to climb beyond the reach of most Missoula households. As of May, the median price of a single-family home in the City of Missoula sat at $606,000, according to the Missoula Organization of Realtors. When all housing types are factored in, including condos and townhomes, the median price was $537,000.

Median price for a single-family home in Missoula and the surrounding areas. (Missoula Organization of Realtors.)
Median price for a single-family home in Missoula and the surrounding areas. (Missoula Organization of Realtors.)

While the diagnostic found a wide misalignment between current zoning codes and the city's growth policy, it also found that portions of today's codes hinder the city's goals toward inward development and infill. That too has an impact on housing costs and how growth and transportation goals align.

“We find that the codes are not in alignment with the focus-inward vision,” Brewer said. “The diagnostic also notes that the city's parking regulations aren't in alignment with the goals of reducing single-occupancy vehicle use.”

The code-reform process and eventual creation of a unified development ordinance will look to address a wide range of issues. Aside from adopting “plain language and clear graphics” to make the codes easier to read and apply, the effort will aim to boost the city's housing supply, particularly near key transit corridors.

City officials said they will also look to provide incentives for affordable housing and allow for a more diverse housing stock. The city expects to present a draft development ordinance later this year.

“We believe that Missoula's vision for a people-centered environment is best served by clear, consistent, aligned and easy-to-navigate development codes that result in a predictable, fair and effective development review process,” Pehan said.

The City Council is expected to adopt a resolution supporting the code diagnostic and creation of a unified development code next week.