Bill Van Horn

What would you say about a discussion that ignored 53% of the community? Most people I’m sure would be appalled. But the fact is we’re having one right now. In all the discussion about housing and the like in Missoula, 53% of the population is consistently ignored.

That’s the 53% (according to Missoula’s own 2023 Neighborhood report) of us who rent. And a recent letter to the Current reminded us how precarious and tragic life can be for that 53%, a percentage that’s higher than the state average of 40%.

When was the last time you heard any civic leader mention the impact of property taxes on renters? When was the last time you heard many of them discuss renters at all, unless they were bragging about approving another apartment complex? The sad fact is rental units are an easy way to increase places for people to stay, but contrary to the current marketing fad they are NOT “apartment homes.”

If they were truly “homes,” rent would improve your credit score and be taken into account if you applied for a mortgage. As it stands, rent can only hurt you. And no one seems overly concerned that rent for many in Missoula consumes at least 40% of their income.

Just over half of Missoula’s population does not own the place where they live. And each new rental-centered project that sails through City Council increases the percentage of Missoula residents who do not (and may never) own their own homes. New construction is dominated by these modern-day tenements, and the number of apartment complexes owned by out-of-state entities seems to be growing as well.

Many of these new projects come wrapped in talk of “neighborhoods.” The plain fact is rental areas are rarely neighborhoods in the traditional sense. They can’t be. I grew up in a neighborhood dominated by rented houses (one of which we lived in), and it was rare for anyone to stay longer than a couple of years.

I suspect it had once been a strong neighborhood, but over time it became a holding space for people to stay until they either could afford a home or were priced out of town and had to move. And with no steady residents, no pride of ownership, and landlords unable or unwilling to conduct basic maintenance let alone improvements, the area started to degrade.

Renters pay taxes, too. We absorb each increase in property tax in the form of a rent hike, but have no recourse. We can’t apply for a reappraisal, appeal to the county or state, or anything else. We just watch more of our income swirl away down the rent toilet bowl. Our rent can (and has) been arbitrarily increased, usually at a rate higher than any pay increases we may be fortunate enough to see. And unlike mortgage rates, rent NEVER goes down.

We pack our residents into boxes where they have no control, no ability to make even the most basic changes in their living environment, and then wonder why there’s no engagement and no sense of community. Christopher Alexander and his co-authors summed it up best in their seminal work A Pattern Language: “People cannot be genuinely comfortable and healthy in a house which is not theirs.

All forms of rental - whether from private landlords or public housing agencies - work against the natural processes which allow people to form stable, self-healing communities.” (393) We claim to honor the land use principles of the Salish and other Native peoples, but did the Salish rent their lodges from the Crow? Did they stack families one on top of the other in those rented lodges? They did not. And neither should we.