Community Voices: Affordable housing belongs in Missoula’s wealthy neighborhoods, too

Danny Tenenbaum

The heart of Missoula is its open space. The land, water, and skies – they sustain us. The trails keep us healthy, alive, inspired. The upcoming Open Space bond is vital to continue this tradition of conservation, and to ensure Missoula remains a place for those who love the outdoors.

Opponents to the upcoming bond, however, worry that the bond could exacerbate Missoula’s lack of affordable housing. Empty land should be developed, they say.

They’re not entirely wrong. If we strictly limit where housing can be built, the rents and prices of existing housing will rise, even more than they already have. We’ll still have trails and beautiful open space but, like Boulder and Bozeman, the people who make Missoula what it is will have to commute from an hour away just to pay a somewhat reasonable rent.

The things is, we don’t need to sacrifice undeveloped land by building outwards. We need to build up. Higher density, multi-family dwellings are more affordable than single family housing, and they have a fraction of the environmental footprint. Allowing this development along bus-serviced streets guarantees that residents will be able to live, work and play without having to get in the car and drive somewhere.

What’s standing in the way are Missoula’s zoning rules. Building multi-family housing is currently illegal in Missoula’s wealthiest neighborhoods: the Rattlesnake, and the Lewis and Clark and University districts. Where does the City Council allow affordable housing to be built? Only in neighborhoods like the Northside, the Westside, East Missoula, and Franklin to the Fort.

This has to change. Affordable, transit-friendly housing belongs everywhere in Missoula. Rezoning busy streets in Missoula’s wealthier neighborhoods to allow multi-family housing will exponentially increase the number of units available to the people who keep Missoula running. It is absurd that only single family houses can be built on Van Buren, South Ave., Arthur, and South Higgins. Some of these streets will soon see a bus every 7 minutes – this is exactly where higher density development belongs.

Rezoning doesn’t require taxes, grants, bonds, mills, or tax increment financing. It literally costs nothing. Racially-tinged complaints from landowners about ‘crime,’ ‘property values’ and ‘neighborhood character’ will inevitably bubble up in opposition. Any council member who is serious about affordable housing must reject these fear-based pleas. Affordable housing is a city-wide problem that demands city-wide solutions.

Who has the power to make it happen? The City Council. Missoula’s affordable housing shortage will reach a crisis stage if our leadership continues to perpetuate inequality by blocking the construction of multi-family dwellings. Affordable housing belongs in all of Missoula’s neighborhoods. Let’s make it happen.

Danny Tenenbaum is a local attorney and a member of Missoula’s Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Board.