Housing, wages, transit top Ward 2 applicants’ concerns

Members of the Missoula City Council, pictured above, posed a number of questions to the first round of applicants vying to replace Ruth Ann Swaney in Ward 2. They’re expected to make a selection next month.

Five of the eight applicants vying to represent Ward 2 on the Missoula City Council took their turn at the podium on Wednesday, where they answered a series of questions posed by council members.

Among the questions, the applicants were asked what they see as the most important issue facing the city of Missoula over the next two years. Most included the cost of housing in their answers.

Jason Krumbeck, a physical therapist, said the city must plan for the next 10 years, and housing and jobs are part of that equation. Like nearly all of the candidates, he believes the cost of housing when compared to local wages is out of balance.

“That’s a huge challenge and it’s probably the most pressing issue in the next two years,” said Krumbeck, who added that the city must also invest in a 21st century economy. “There’s a lot to be dome to get Missoula up to having a dynamic economy and being able to attract different enterprises. We need to put the work in now.”

When posed with the same question, Mirtha Becerra, a land-use and transportation planner, said diversifying the city’s revenue stream to alleviate property taxes is an important issue, as is affordable housing.

The median price of a home in Missoula has risen north of $270,000 and most families can’t afford such prices, she said.

“In order for a family to own that, their salaries would have to double, and we know that’s not likely to happen in two years,” said Becerra. “As we grow, we’re going to have a need for more housing, but that challenge can be met by putting more housing units out there.”

As part of that, Becerra said, the city must work with developers to find creative solutions to the challenge. Most of the projects under development don’t qualify as affordable housing, she said.

“We need to find ways to work with developers and land-use planners to find the right balance of incentives and regulations,” she said. “Finding the right amount of carrot and the right amount of stick is very important for the future of our community.”

Becerra also sees transportation as a pressing issue. She feels the city must uphold its Complete Streets policy and ensure the transportation grid provides for all users.

“It’s in our best interest to provide a safe and efficient transportation network that includes all modes of transportation,” she said. “I think it would be interesting to explore a little bit further the idea of transit-oriented development so we can prevent traffic congestion in certain parts of the city.”

A study released this week found that the disparity between local wages and housing costs stand as a barrier to economic growth. That challenge could deepen if not resolved and it received the attention of nearly all the applicants.

Mark Storud, a semi-retired employee at the Ranch Club Golf Course, said that many of the issues facing the city are intertwined, including good-paying jobs and the cost of housing. Service jobs won’t move the dial, he added.

“Good-paying jobs would help solve the issue of housing,” said Storud. “Service industry jobs are the easiest to bring in, but they don’t put food on the table. We need a good strong mission statement to bring us forward and to see what we can do to make sure we have companies wanting to come to Missoula, who want to be here and want to pay good salaries.”

Ronald Barker, an addiction and mental health counselor, didn’t lead his answer with housing costs but said the city’s primary challenge is declining enrollment at the University of Montana.

He also believes Mountain Line’s zero fare service must be continued, that the city should address drug and sex trafficking along the Interstate 90 corridor, and that Missoula must continue to welcome refugees to ensure their unique needs are met.

On the issue of housing, he said, the costs are high and wages remain low.

“We must find a way to address these issues and continue to provide and explore avenues to provide affordable housing,” said Barker. “This will give residents a reason to stay in Missoula, bring income into the city, and hopefully one day allow us to reduce taxes with the excess revenue.”

Jay Raines, a retiree, said he wanted people to get involved in their community and believes finances are the city’s greatest challenge.

“Always finances,” he said. “(It’s) getting things done knowing the budget is tight and finding creative ways to get things done where there isn’t money to do them.”

The three remaining applicants, Jim Polk, Jack Metcalf and Madison Schroeder, will be interviewed next Wednesday. The council is expected to fill the Ward 2 vacancy on Monday, Nov. 6.