Habitat Missoula: Labor, lumber, laws, lending and lots keys to affordable housing

On October 26th, 2021, Habitat for Humanity of Missoula hosted a public town hall where we shared what we are doing to address today’s housing crisis. Over the last 30 years, we have rallied community volunteers and supporters to help us build two homes each year, resulting in 62 homes to date.

However, to take the lead in building homeownership for our workforce, we must focus on the 5 L’s involved in the calculus of housing: Labor, Lumber, Laws, Lending, and Lots.

We shared the steps we are actively taking to pivot in a new direction as we all recognize that today’s paradigm has shifted away from historical norms.

New housing stock is being added to the community every day, but very few affordable units are being built. Habitat has been working closely with local developers; learning from them a new perspective on their challenges. Our fellow private sector developers want to offer affordable housing, but they simply can’t make it pencil.

Like every other business entity, developers pass along the costs of staff, overhead, materials, regulations, and risk to the end-user. Reductions in these costs are the only way we can collectively increase the supply of affordable homes.

Due to a labor shortage, businesses are struggling to keep employees because they can’t offer wages high enough to afford the increased rents on top of the low availability for these homes. Likely you have noticed more “Now Hiring” signs or the number of businesses that have closed. In addition, we see a dramatic increase in our homeless population, shelters are reaching capacity, teachers are renting out their rooms and basements to other teachers, and numerous families are living in RVs.

A recent study revealed that Missoula lacks 2,400 housing units from the last decade to provide for need, and we will need another 6,500 for the next decade to address growth. Habitat’s traditional way of building two homes a year no longer meets demand. This is why we have partnered with the University of Montana to form an Innovation Team dedicated to finding sustainable ways to build.

Through collaboration, we are exploring insulated concrete forms, modular components, cross-laminated timber, self-insulated panels, and automated 3-D concrete printers [3DCP] to determine alternatives to our traditional wood-framed or stick-built construction.

These options would significantly reduce the amount of time needed to build, allowing us to increase the number of affordable homes each year incrementally. This change is essential to facing the housing crisis in Missoula. In addition, exploring sustainable ways to build allows us to address the elements of Labor and Lumber simultaneously and do so with climate resiliency at the forefront.

Some good news on the Lots and Laws front: the City has committed to overhauling its zoning code. However, that process will take 2-3 years to complete. In the meantime, we all worry that even more families will be forced out of the place they call home. Instead of waiting for that future date to happen, our Land Acquisition & Development team met with Mayor Engen and his staff.

We advocated for interim zoning rules that would allow us to address parts of the zoning rewrite process sooner than later. We as a community can embrace the idea of smaller homeownership lots by reducing minimum lot sizes, rear setbacks, parkland dedication, and parking requirements. If we can support that idea we believe we can accelerate the number of affordable units to come online.

Lastly, lending or financing is one of the most critical elements in finding sustainability in housing. With financial support from our community, we can provide affordable housing and continue to research innovative solutions.

Although Habitat is well-positioned to take a higher responsibility in the housing crisis, we won’t be able to do it alone. Please consider joining us to amplify our voice and fight for a change today. We can’t sit wait for change to come to us. We appreciate all of the support from our community members over the years and look forward to growth opportunities in the coming years.

Feel free to reach out to us with your time, talent, and resources at www.habitatmsla.org, volunteer@habitatmsla.org, or call 406-549-8210. We’d love to meet you.

Heather Harp, Executive Director; Brittany Horres, VISTA Volunteer; Katrina Angelina, Communications & Grants Director