Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) An effort to ban tourism homes from residential neighborhoods unless or until certain other businesses are permitted in the same location failed to advance on Wednesday after the City Council killed the measure on a 10-2 vote.

However, the city's push to reform its zoning codes will likely address the sponsor's ultimate goal of getting other businesses, such as corner markets and coffee shops, permitted in residential zones. It's an issue nearly all council members agree on.

“If we changed our zoning to allow for businesses in all those residential zoned areas, short-term rentals would also be included,” said Daniel Carlino, who sponsored the measure. “But I don't want us to make exceptions in residential zoned areas for only these types of businesses.”

As presented on Wednesday, the measure would ban tourist homes that aren't owner occupied from receiving a permit in residential zones. It would also clarify that tourist homes are “businesses” and not residential pieces of property.

But as in past attempts to address what some see as a problem, claims that tourist homes are eating up massive amounts of residential property isn't supported by data collected by the city.

In 2022, Missoula had 585 tourist-home listings, or around 11.8 units for every 1,000 households. That's less than Bozeman, which had 723 tourist homes representing around 35 units for every 1,000 residents, and Whitefish, which had 820 short-term rentals representing 229 units for every 1,000 residents.

More recently, the city identified 587 short-term rentals, representing only 1.5% of all housing units in Missoula. But at the end of December, only 114 units that are required to register had done so.

“We have our work cut out for us in terms of noticing and educating and working with these operators to bring them into compliance with the code in place today,” said Eran Pehan, the city's director of planning and development. “That's work we'll be taking up over the next few months.”

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While the ban failed to win support beyond Carlino and council member Kristen Jordan, nearly all council members voiced support for building neighborhoods that include a wider range of business types.

Currently, some businesses are permitted in residential zones, such as mechanics, churches, water testing labs, day cares and cultural exhibits, among others. Allowing markets, coffee shops and other popular amenities will be considered as the city continues its work to reform its zoning codes.

“I think we need to let code reform do its work,” said council member Jennifer Savage. “That's the aim of code reform and that's where it's headed.”

Savage also took issue with Carlino's suggestion that those who operate short-term rentals, or vacation homes, were putting “profit over people.” Over the past few years, several operators have told City Council that they rely upon the income they receive from their business to make ends meet.

Savage said she too relies upon such income simply to keep her family in Missoula.

“I have always worked full time. My husband has always worked full time,” she said. “That availability to equity and to make a living in Missoula has to stay here, otherwise we'll lose an entire sector of our community. It's been a game changer for us to be able to stay here.”

Others believe it's a matter of private property rights. If the ultimate goal is to allow more businesses to operate in residential neighborhoods, more restrictions aren't the answer, said council member Sandra Vasecka.

“What you do with your own home is frankly none of our business,” she said. “When the goal is to allow more mixed uses in residential neighborhoods, I don't believe more regulations and tighter restrictions will get us to that goal.”

Nearly all council members voiced support for letting code reform play out before the city places heavy restrictions on businesses and private property rights. Some are also working to bring current tourist-home operators into compliance with city ordinance, and they're working to make the application process easier.

As it currently stands, they said registering a tourist home with the city is laborious and unnecessarily difficult.

“We have been putting a lot into code reform. It's a more holistic approach, where all the various pieces are taken into consideration,” said council member Stacie Anderson. “We want to incentivize compliance. I don't think a blanket outlaw solves the problem we're trying to get at in the future, where everyone who wants to live here has a safe and affordable place to live.”

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