On eve of unveiling, city’s new housing policy comes with hopes, questions

It was back in the summer of 2016 when Missoula Mayor John Engen announced his plans to establish a new city office and direct its staff to draft a housing policy.

Both efforts marked a first for Missoula and both came with a sense of urgency.

“I’ve become increasingly frustrated that we don’t have a housing policy here in the city of Missoula,” Engen said that year. “Nor do we have much intentionality around the way we make public investments in housing. The way we get there is to have a team dedicated to creating a policy and executing that policy.”

Nearly three years later, the Office of Housing and Community Development will unveil “A Place to Call Home: Meeting Missoula’s Housing Needs” during a committee meeting of the City Council next week.

Those behind the plan say it provides a strategic set of recommendations intended to make Missoula an affordable place to live. The implications could be far reaching and impactful, and housing advocates hope it moves the dial.

“It will be nice to have one place where it’s all come together to outline what those goals are that can help guide our conversations going forward,” said Jessica Burson, the marketing manager for Homeword. “If we continue to work together the way we have been, there should definitely be some successes. But this policy will only be as good a tool as it’s being used.”

When the mayor created the housing office back in 2016 and the effort to write a housing policy began, the median price of a Missoula home was $238,000. The Missoula Organization of Realtors, which provided the figure, called it a record high.

This year, the median price of a home hit $290,000 – again a record high. The rental market remains tight, just as it was in 2016. And while the median income in Missoula County has risen from $47,000 in 2016 to $54,000 this year, it still lags behind the cost of housing, leaving affordability a significant issue.

“Missoula is stronger when we have homes that help children succeed, homes our veterans can return to, places for seniors to live in dignity, and homes that our local workers can afford,” said Burson. “We’re excited to have a policy with the tools to meet those goals.”

This issues driving local housing costs are varied and complex, and to address them, the city engaged a number of stakeholders to dig deeper into the root causes, including any regulations that may hinder the development of affordable housing.

That challenge came out during a recent meeting of the Consolidated Planning Board, where board member Andy Mefford said, “We continue to mound the regulations on and every time we mound them up, it adds costs.”

Eran Pehan, director of the city’s housing office, didn’t disagree with that take. While she couldn’t be reached on Friday, she said last month that the housing policy working group met with nearly two-dozen private developers for feedback on the policy’s emerging recommendations.

“It is a focus of our recommendations on regulation and code to remove unnecessary regulations that do increase costs, and to determine how we can incentivize affordability,” Pehan said.

According to the city, the policy will offer a number of recommendations, including the need to leverage funding and resources to support housing. That includes building an affordable housing trust, the details of which haven’t been released.

The policy also looks to offer incentives to developers who build affordable housing while lowering the barriers that may prevent it. It includes the promotion of infill development near existing city services – another move that could reduce costs – and the development of backyard homes, or accessory dwelling units.

Several recommendations could be controversial, including ADUs, and it will be up to the City Council to adopt them into policy. But housing advocates remain hopeful that the city’s efforts to address housing will show results.

“We’re looking forward to being able to implement some of those suggestions and policy pieces that come out,” said Burson. “As people are facing the challenges of being able to afford a home across the community, it’s becoming more of a focus. We’re all wanting to have those solutions and work together on them, because we see the impact everywhere we look around the community.”