By Martin Kidston

Bryce Ward drew a reaction from the crowd back in October when he presented his talk on Missoula's cost of living, its quality of life and the availability of jobs.

Presenting to members of the Missoula Economic Partnership, he posed a single question: Do people want to live here? The answer, according to the statistics, is a resounding yes.

Ward, an economist with the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, offered the same presentation this week to the Missoula City Council.

While the findings haven't changed, the presentation allowed time for dialogue, prompting the city's elected officials to consider what Missoula does right, and where it can improve. Yet like most things in life, Ward cautioned, if the city changes one part of the equation, it will alter another.

No single city can have it all when it comes to quality of life, affordability and an abundance of jobs.

“It's easy to look at the problem, but when you solve it, you just change the problem,” said Ward. “Understand that you always face a tradeoff. You have to decide what you want to be as a community.”

Since 1990, Missoula’s population has grown 142 percent, or 1.5 times the rate of the U.S. population. To Ward, that proves that Missoula provides a high quality of living, one that’s been noted in many national studies and magazine articles.

But since 1990, housing prices in Missoula have risen 114 percent when adjusted for inflation. That makes the city the third fastest growing metro area in the nation when it comes to housing costs, outpacing the likes of Seattle, Portland and San Francisco.

Back in 1990, Ward added, the city’s ratio of median home values compared to its median household income was 2.83 percent. It was considered high at the time, though it has since risen to more than 5 percent.

The rapid increase in housing prices isn't keeping pace with the city's low wages.

“About 40 percent of Missoula residents over age 25 have a college degree,” Ward said. “It ranks Missoula in the top 25 of all metro areas. But the wage growth, for whatever reason, isn't following. We're getting the concentration, but haven't figured out how to employ them in ways that allow them to earn more.”

According to Ward's data, a Missoula resident holding a bachelor’s degree makes just $31,189 a year on average. The national average is $50,515. Missoula workers with a high school diploma earn $25,908 a year, compared to the national average of $27,868.

The fact that college graduates make little more than a high-school graduate in Missoula has led to a net loss of college-educated workers. Not only can they not find a job that pays a competitive wage, they can't afford the city's cost of housing.

“Missoula offers great quality of life, its cost of living is below average but high for a city its size, and it's becoming much more expensive at a rapid rate,” Ward said. “Income isn't keeping up with that increase. That's the bundle that Missoula is offering. Is it the problem you want to have?”

The city has launched a number of initiatives aimed at housing affordability in recent months, including the new Office of Housing and Community Development. Members of the City Council are also considering a tax abatement program for homeowners.

While both efforts are aimed at affordability, neither addresses area wages. On some fronts, Ward said, there's little the city can do to effect change, though several members of the council are looking to try, and they've chosen the housing front as a place to start.

“We've recently made a large commitment to housing in our community,” said Ward 4 council member John DiBari. “Our growth policy has laid out a vision that will actualize and help us achieve some of the solutions to housing.”

For decades, Dibari said, the city as been home to subdivisions that cater to what some see as the “American dream,” one that comes with a three-bedroom home on a quarter-acre lot with a large yard. But in a city limited in part by geography, most agree that vision is not sustainable.

Crews put the finishing touches on Sweetgrass Commons, an affordable housing project in in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Crews put the finishing touches on Sweetgrass Commons, an affordable housing project in in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Ward touched on the point, noting housing growth in other communities. In McAllen, Texas, he said, 99 percent of the surrounding land is flat and developable, and housing costs are below the national average as a result.

In San Jose, California, however, just 36 percent of the land is developable. As a result, the cost of housing is high. Missoula faces similar challenges, though Dibari believes the city's growth policy will serve as a valuable tool as it looks to address its housing costs.

“We want to focus our growth and development into our city,” he said. “That opportunity presents a chance to develop a different kind of menu, and that presents an opportunity for how we address things like design, zoning districts and housing types.

“It also means we have to actualize our growth policy to make this happen. It's important that, as we're addressing this issue of housing, that we look at developing that menu of options, and that vision that's been clearly articulated in our growth policy.”

Ward 3 council member Gwen Jones agreed that the city's growth policy is a powerful tool to guide change on the housing front. While the City Council may play a limited role in supply and demand, it can work toward changing long-standing expectations regarding the definition of quality of life.

“It's an area the City Council can focus on,” said Jones. “There's different ways to live that we need to adapt to a Missoula and a Montana culture and climate that can be more sustainable in the long run. We have to prioritize and articulate our values, but we have to be realistic about the amount of change to effect."