City housing office, others working toward Missoula housing policy

A new housing policy will look at barriers to development and ways to implement housing across a wide range of incomes. (Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Missoula’s Office of Housing and Community Development is working behind the scenes to lay the groundwork for a citywide housing policy, a need that has surfaced several times in the past few weeks amid discussions by the City Council.

How that plan takes shape will depend upon the outcome of several studies now in the works, though Eran Pehan, the city’s director of housing and community development, hopes to see progress this fall.

“We’ve been working very hard behind the scenes to gather the data and build the framework we’re going to need in a citywide policy,” said Pehan. “If we want to find success, we have to have a solid understanding of where we’re starting from.”

Some of the facts are already known, including the city’s rising cost of housing. The latest report released by the Missoula Organization of Realtors found that housing prices jumped nearly 7 percent over the prior year, with a median-priced home reaching a record high of $255,000.

While the cost of rent held steady across most categories last year, the cost of housing remains one of Missoula’s leading challenges. Other unknowns, such as development barriers and the diversity of housing types, further cloud the picture. Some experts suggest the city is suffering from a general lack of supply.

“To gauge that, we’ve been working on several fronts to define the issues,” said Pehan. “We partnered with MOR and Missoula County, among others, to define the issues. That will help answer some of the questions for us.”

Sam Sill, the public affairs director for MOR, agreed, saying demographic and consumer data is needed to create a well-informed plan, one that will enable meaningful conversations around affordability.

That issue of affordability has nudged its way into numerous discussions, including those surrounding a private development in downtown Missoula, where Riverfront Development Partners plans to incorporate residential units into a larger project.

Council members are looking to forge an agreement with the developers to address “the appropriate mix of multi-income housing” offered within the project. That, nearly everyone agrees, will require the participation of the city and other nonprofit housing groups.

“We have private developers who want to work hard to make Missoula a place where everyone can live and thrive,” said Pehan. “We want to get these groups together and figure out how we can work together to make these projects successful while building them to scale.”

Given the city’s geographical constraints, Pehan said, the effort must look at building at greater densities, but doing so at an affordable rate. That effort is already written into several city plans, including the city’s new growth policy and the recently unveiled vision for the Brooks Street corridor.

“We have to look at how we can build more density and use the land we have left to build communities that aren’t just beautiful and walkable, but are places that can house more people on a smaller footprint,” Pehan said.

“Our goal – and what you’ll see nationwide – is to incentivize the incorporation of affordable units into any larger development. We really want to define why it’s difficult for developers to do that now, and how can we change that.”

Pehan said she’s also working with Community Builders, a Colorado-based nonprofit that helps cities resolve complex issues, including attainable housing. She expects the resulting “affordable housing guidebook” to be ready by summer’s end.

That, combined with the larger housing report, will help inform the city’s future housing policy.

“There are strategies being used nationwide that address affordable housing,” Pehan said. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Our task is to figure out how the policies that are tried and true in larger communities can work in places like Missoula.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com