Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) As Missoula's economic picture changes alongside a shifting housing market, the city is looking to the experiences of those most impacted by the current market in hopes of recommending solutions.

But under the restrictions in state law, doing so may be challenging and depend more on coalitions and partnerships than policy, city officials said this week. They plan to recommend policies next week for the city to consider.

“We're working within a distinct legal and legislative context,” said Emily Harris-Sheers, the city's housing policy specialist. “The preemptions from state law, particularly Powers Denied and the Residential Landlord and Tenant Act of 1977, have limitations on what the city can do. This is challenging but it doesn't mean we have to stop there.”

The city held a number of listening sessions recently and reached out to local groups including the Poverello Center, the Missoula Tenants Union, the International Rescue Committee and the All Nations Health Center, among others, to understand their personal challenges around housing.

It resulted in a Housing displacement and assessment report completed in the fall, and it cited a range of issues the city looks to address.

Key takeaways

Through its outreach, the city gleaned several key themes that impacted fair housing in Missoula including constraints in the rental market, the experience of voucher holds, “choice and autonomy,” systemic racism and perceived restrictions in current zoning, particularly related to traditional single-family neighborhoods.

Many of the issues mentioned by Harris-Shears landed at the feet of landlords. She referenced tenants facing rising rents during renewal, confusing evictions and non-renewal of leases, fear of retaliation when seeking maintenance or property support, and alleged violations of the Fair Housing Act.

“Fair housing concerns came up a lot in our listening sessions,” Harris-Shears said. “We heard about denials based on sources of income. We also heard about language discrimination, where property owners or management companies told people who didn't speak or read English as a primary language that unless they could respond to emails in English, they wouldn't rent to them.”

Harris-Shears cited other issues, including a lack of rental history, which applied to families that had experienced domestic violence, and newly arrived refugees who may have little experience navigating the U.S. rental market.

Whether the discrimination was intentional or not, she said the outcome disproportionately impacted certain groups looking for housing. She added that policies intended to be neutral still effected some people defined by one of the Fair Housing Act's protected categories.

Occupied units by type in Missoula. (US Census Bureau)
Occupied units by type in Missoula. (US Census Bureau)

Harris-Sheers cited one example, saying most landlords require a baseline credit score. During the listening session, some women said their score was below the threshold because they were fleeing domestic violence, which resulted in unpaid bills or rent.

Harris-Shears added that landlords need to carve out exceptions and consider when a policy may be impacting a group of people – women in her example on credit requirements.

“While it appears neutral on its face, it could be disproportionately impacting women searching for housing in the rental market,” said Harris-Shears. “It's something we heard often in our listening sessions.”

Statics and demographics

As the city looks for recommendations to cure alleged shortcomings in the housing market, it also collected new data to back some of its goals.

The Housing Landscape Assessment, completed last fall, found that in 2019, the city had 33,448 occupied units. That grew in 2021 to 33,744 occupied units.

During that time, however, the number of owner-occupied units fell from 52% in 2019 to 45% in 2021 while renter-occupied units grew.

“We see the share of renter occupied and owner occupied have swapped in the last two years,” she said. “This can be explained by a number of factors, including the increase in the median home sales price we saw start climbing in 2019, and also the shrinking number of homes available to purchase under $300,000.”

The report also looked at migration, race and wages. It concluded that wages and housing costs were growing farther apart.

Comparison of median home sale prices and area median income over time. (Missoula Organization of Realtors)
Comparison of median home sale prices and area median income over time. (Missoula Organization of Realtors)

In 2012, the median price of a home in Missoula sat just over $200,000 while median wages hovered slightly above $50,000. By 2021, the median price of a home more than doubled to $450,000 while wages grew 19% to around $60,000.

“We heard a lot that wages are not keeping pace with housing costs,” Harris-Sheers said. “We see that to be true and bear out in the data.”

She said the disparity has led to a greater number of people considered burdened by housing costs, or those who pay more than 30% of their income to housing. Of those, Harris-Shears said, 52% identified as Hispanic, 46% as black and 36% as white.

She said it reveals “systemic racism” and runs contrary to Missoula's goals on justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.

“The purpose of disaggragating our data by race is to understand that yes, it's happening to people across the board in Missoula, but that it's happening at higher rates and potentially in more impacful ways to people who are also working within systems that are otherwise discriminatory to their households and identity,” Harris-Shears said. “This alerts to us an opportunity to focus and do more work there.”