Community Voices: Missoula’s proposed housing policy is skewed toward developer incentives

Recently, the Missoula City Council was handed a slate of housing policy recommendations to review, and they have work to do before the June 24 vote. The policy recommendations are skewed in the direction of developer incentives. These types of incentives largely failed when Bozeman and Whitefish tried them. Both cities have now switched over to mandatory inclusionary zoning policies.

We don’t have the luxury of time to wait and see if the incentives work and then change course. A University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research study from 2018 reported that when median wages are compared to median home prices, Missoula housing is already less affordable than Bozeman, Denver, Seattle, Portland and Miami.

I am asking our City Council and Missoula Redevelopment Agency to enact two regulatory policies to stop the displacement of working people: 1) mandatory inclusionary zoning and 2) Tax Increment Finance District affordability requirements.

Mandatory inclusionary zoning requires projects over a certain size to include affordable homes or pay a fee to a housing trust fund. Affordability requirements for TIF funding would act similarly, requiring housing projects that receive TIF to include affordable units.

Imagine what our stock of housing would look like if inclusionary zoning or TIF requirements had been in place before the Sawmill District and Roam Apartments: If we had a 10 percent affordability requirement, Missoula would have 120 more affordable homes. At Roam, developers received TIF funding, rents are high, and the building now sits with about 69 percent of units occupied. At Sawmill, the MRA and Homeword worked together to develop 27 affordable units. MRA has the power to do more.

Trust Montana and the North-Missoula Community Development Corporation both maintain permanently affordable housing with the Community land trust model, often with TIF and federal grants. Community land trusts are effective at providing workforce home ownership opportunity in Missoula: If you see a home selling for less than $180,000, chances are high it is one of the homes NMCDC developed.

Missoula’s home prices are based on what people from out of state can afford. As one Whitefish City Councilperson stated about their decision to enact mandatory inclusionary zoning: “The business model of land developers does not cater to the local workforce. The market has created this issue and it’s time to regulate it.”

I was one of about two people on the Housing Policy Steering Committee that does not (read: cannot afford to) own a home in my town — and I have two good jobs. My peers are moving away or holding on by a thread just to stay here. I’ve just received news that another mobile home park is being demolished, with nowhere for the residents to go. I’m aware of “stacks” of pre-qualification letters at our local banks for families that can afford a home for $190,000 to $250,000. There are almost no homes for them to buy. Those of us trapped in the rental market contribute to low vacancy rates, which means landlords can keep raising rents.

City staff have been trying to balance everyone’s needs while crafting recommendations to ensure affordable housing is developed in a rapidly gentrifying city. I appreciate the support they are suggesting for nonprofit developers. Missoula citizens affected by this crisis should ask City Council and MRA to take a look at Whitefish and Bozeman.

At the very least, we must include a fail-safe switch to trigger mandatory policies when the incentives don’t work.  Mandatory policies can work alongside and strengthen many of the recommendations. We have strong minds at the city capable of creating good policy. Let’s make a change that benefits working Missoulians.

Hermina Jean Harold is the executive director of Trust Montana and a community organizer for the North-Missoula Community Development Corporation.