Nugent: Missoula’s housing woes need solutions at all levels
Even before the pandemic supercharged Missoula’s housing market, we struggled as a community to build enough housing to meet demand. Every major issue Missoula now faces – from cost of living and climate change to homelessness – is compounded by housing insecurity fueled by skyrocketing costs and inadequate access to housing.
If people do not have a safe place to lay their head at night, everything else suffers. Simply put, we need more housing.
It seems lately the city indicates housing is a priority but our biggest attempts at grants and funding focus elsewhere. That must change – we need to delineate wants versus needs ensuring everyday Missoulians can afford to live here should be our priority and we need to act like it.
To do that, we must fix persistent obstacles to getting housing projects approved and completed in a reasonable amount of time, so people have more options at all price ranges. Concrete steps the City Council can take to improve the process – and people’s trust in it – include:
- Project Prioritization: We must be honest with ourselves about what each city project accomplishes. We are in a housing crisis and should focus on helping Missoulians as best we can. Great projects may be ready to go, but if they won’t help us solve our biggest problems, we need to evaluate whether now is the time.
- Proactive Approach: We must create an environment where people willing to help us solve our problems feel welcome to share ideas without immediately receiving skepticism. We shouldn't start with “No;” we should invite the conversation.
- Code Reforms: Current efforts to comprehensively update the Missoula building and zoning code present our largest opportunity to improve the lives of Missoulians. Code reform can improve outcomes and reduce wait times and unnecessary regulatory barriers that frustrate our staff and anger residents. This process must end with an updated zoning map to match our growth plan.
- Staff Autonomy: City staff need flexibility to make decisions and to present minor or routine items to the council only if applicants disagree with the staff's interpretation.
- Federal Grants: I am proud to be part of the coalition that brought $13 million in federal BUILD Grant money to directly support infrastructure for 6,000 housing units in our community. Pursuing more federal grants of this nature will help us create more housing infrastructure without further stretching our city’s limited finances, but housing MUST be the main goal.
This will enable Missoula to better manage its growing population, while ensuring it expands as a regional economic and cultural engine without losing its unique character. Central to that character – what makes Missoula special – is ensuring that people who work here can live here. We must meet this moment so Missoula fulfills the promise of opportunity, equity, and inclusion that prior generations worked so hard to build.
Honoring that obligation is a particular challenge in dealing with homelessness. Let’s be clear: Homelessness is primarily a housing issue. The most common factors among all cities with high homeless populations are increasing housing costs and insufficient amounts of housing – which we certainly see in Missoula and statewide.
Sometimes the simplest answer can be the correct answer. We need solutions at every level, from publicly subsidized housing developments to affordable home ownership opportunities to a healthy and well-functioning market rate housing environment. Housing is our biggest answer. We need to understand our growth and create enough housing to meet the moment. We need to live up to the Montana values we preach.
Mike Nugent is a City of Missoula Council Member and a candidate for mayor.