by William Skink
The housing crunch in Missoula impacts everything from emergency response services to refugee relocation and everything in between. The housing needs are as varied as the demographics involved. Missoula needs more workforce housing, low-income housing, starter homes for first-time homebuyers and some type of housing for the hardest-to-house chronically homeless population.
One of the common approaches to this complicated issue is to endlessly study the problem of housing accessibility. It seems like over the years I’ve written at least a half-dozen posts about affordable housing that includes a reference to the latest study. This post will be no different, thanks to James Grunke playing Captain Obvious with a piece in the Missoulian describing how housing barriers hurt the economy:
In our housing survey with the Organization of Realtors, a primary goal is to find answers to some of our community’s most pressing questions: What are the barriers to residential development in Missoula? And what do homebuyers want?
The study will include interviews with focus groups (to assess consumer demand and preferences) and developers (to learn why they’re not developing the land that’s available in and around Missoula).
The Missoula Economic Partnership views housing as an economic development concern because of its impact on employers’ ability to attract the workers needed to move their businesses – and our economy – forward.
To that end, we support efforts to create and incentivize a housing market where consumers have choices at every price point. Because, yes, attainable housing is an economic development issue.
Thanks Captain Obvious, I’m sure this latest study will suddenly illuminate the problem in ways previous studies have not.
Studies aren’t the only way Missoula tries to fix its housing problem. Sometimes after a problem is studied, a plan is formed. That happened 5 years ago with the issue of homelessness in Missoula. Our community responded by formulating a 10 year plan to end homelessness, and now that we are half-way through, how are things going with these efforts?
Thanks to some great reporting by the Kaimin, we have a surprising admission by the person who took over coordination of the 10 year plan last fall:
In 2012, Mayor John Engen introduced Reaching Home, a 10-year plan to end homelessness in Missoula. The plan outlined key issues affecting the homeless and those on the brink of homelessness, along with presenting suggestions for solutions.
Now five years into the 10-year endeavor, Reaching Home coordinator Theresa Williams said the plan has shown no measurable effect on the homeless population.
While the plan did not explicitly call for a so-called wet shelter, it did put forth the Housing First method. The method, first promoted during the early 1990s in New York, promotes the idea that housing should be provided, no matter one’s conditions or addictions, as the most basic first step to recovering from a crisis.
A 2009 study by the University of Washington found that moving chronic alcoholics into permanent, supportive housing led to a 33 percent drop in alcohol use.
Williams could not confirm that the city had an actual strategy to make use of the Housing First model outlined in its own 10-year plan.
Read the whole article, it’s vastly better than anything the Missoulian has ever written about homelessness in Missoula, and I’m not just saying that because the reporter included my perspective in his piece.
One of Missoula’s biggest problem when it comes to housing is the vacancy rate that’s been hovering between 4-5%. Because of the lack of available housing, different demographics end up competing with each other. In the article linked above, Grunke explains that retirees are competing with young families over smaller starter homes. That is one form of competition. Another is between refugees who have barriers that are similar to our low-income population.
Last September, those barriers were on display in an article that lamented what refugees were facing with Missoula’s rental market:
Congolese refugees and the people trying to help them get settled in Missoula are facing a housing crisis.
Five families from refugee camps in East Africa will be in town by the end of September, none of them with a source of steady income or credit history.
It’s the job of the local resettlement agency, the International Rescue Committee, to help them secure both as quickly as possible, said IRC director Molly Short Carr.
But record home sales prices in Missoula have placed rentals at a premium. And in a town that swells this time of year with university students – many with no credit ratings themselves – property managers and landlords can afford to be picky about who they rent to.
“We’re kind of hitting a bit of a brick wall,” Carr admitted.
I was enraged when I first read this article. It’s like everyone involved in relocating refugees to Missoula had absolutely no clue about the housing crunch in Missoula. It’s been over half a year since that article, so I wonder how things are going for refugees in Missoula. Are ALL the families who have been brought here STILL here?
There have been some claims in the comment sections of a few article I’ve seen claiming that some of the families have used up their financial allotment and moved on. In this Missoula Current article, for example, Ed Kugler wrote the following comment:
What isn’t mentioned in the article is the number of families who have left Missoula to places unknown because they cannot find housing or jobs and they have trouble adjusting to the cold weather. The IRC refused my attempts to find out exactly how many have left town. What a disservice to these people to bring them half way around the world to a place with no affordable housing and no jobs. What a scam!
If some families have moved on because they can’t find affordable housing, the IRC should be more forthcoming with acknowledging this is happening. Another comment I read claimed some families were being put up in motels. If true, that puts refugees in direct competition with other demographics that utilize the motel system.
Why would the IRC want to hide this? Maybe because it would validate what critics like me were saying from the beginning–that the housing dynamics and wage reality in Missoula makes our community a particularly bad one to be relocating over a hundred refugees a year to.
If refugee families aren’t being able to sustain their presence in Missoula, the first thing to do is admit it’s happening. Then advocates can do what everyone else in Missoula does: fund a study of the problem, formulate a plan, then hope the private sector will put aside greedy collusion, and when they don’t, fund another study and write another plan.
For that is the Missoula way.