Getting TOZ’d In Zoo Town

by William Skink

Another cool million in public money will grease the development of another hotel downtown. We are told this will bring more tourists to roam the sidewalks, showering local shops with money. We are told a whopping 33 permanent service sector jobs will be created. And we are told it’s ultimately a benefit to Missoula taxpayers to use a million dollars extracted from Missoula taxpayers to help those cash-strapped developers because without that money being spent, that awful speck of blight just sitting there being economically unproductive would continue being blight.

So pats on the back all around.

Oh, but where will these 33 service sector workers live in Missoula that doesn’t cost-burden them with unaffordable rent? Solutions to that are forthcoming, we are told.

One idea floated last year to get some housing built is a by-product of Trump’s tax cuts, called Opportunity Zones. Liberals in Missoula may gnash their teeth in horror and dismay over Trump’s election, but that won’t stop the local candidates they vote for from supporting the use of a Trump-enabled economic tool to get a better return on real estate investment for investors.

The West Broadway corridor is a TOZ (Trump Opportunity Zone) that, we are told, could lure investors who then might develop housing. But it won’t be affordable housing for the poor people who make the TOZ a TOZ.

But what do I know? I’ll let the expert explain it:

Pehan said that subsidized affordable housing probably won’t see explosive growth in the area because those rely on grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“The level of subsidy needed to make HUD plans affordable, I don’t think those are the type of assets that are going to be invested in and replaced by the Opportunity Zone,” she said.

But, she said, if investors build more market-rate housing, that could bring up the total supply of housing and possibly drive down prices.

“Creating more housing provides relief on total supply and can help with displacement issues, but (HUD grants and Opportunity Zones) are two different tools,” she said.

What I am hearing from this is that the TOZ is going to entice development of market rate housing, which I presume will be multi-family housing complexes because that’s the kind of housing that provides a better return on investment. This is also the kind of housing people get stuck in because they can’t buy a home.

What middle-income people want is single-family housing they can actually afford to buy, not more apartments to be squeezed into because Missoula’s growth plan and investor expectations dictate this kind of development.

At least this TOZ is getting some critical attention that our elected leaders are actually paying some lip service to. In the article the “g” word—gentrification—was actually used to describe TOZ skepticism. Not only was it used, but it was used in the first paragraph:

There is anxiety about gentrification but also optimism for development in Missoula’s so-called Opportunity Zone, according to city officials who discussed the area in depth on Tuesday.

Later in the article we hear more lip service:

Missoula City Council President Bryan von Lossberg, who lives on the Northside, said he immediately got three texts from different constituents the morning the Missoulian ran an article explaining the Opportunity Zone.

“The first text included a picture of the newspaper and said it’s never good to be in an Opportunity Zone for rich people,” von Lossberg recalled. “That’s an important sentiment to hear and listen to and to share. It captures the angst on the ground. In this period of profound rapid change and development, there is wonderful optimism but also a profound sense of anxiety.”

The problem is lip service is not the same as action. Quotes in newspaper articles, well-intentioned studies, gathering public input, intentionality–it’s all just lip service to cover the fact Missoula is continuing to rapidly gentrify and it’s leaving more and more people behind.

At the end of the article the prize for the most tone deaf statement goes to Ross Keogh, an attorney already helping his clients take advantage of Missoula’s TOZ. Take it away, Ross:

A few people in the crowd expressed concern that rapid development by wealthy investors would turn Missoula into Boulder, Colorado, a town that’s seen so much growth recently that it had to put a moratorium on development.

“I’m also conscious that sometimes we look a lot like Boulder, but I like that I was able to ski last Friday at our local ski hill with some friends,” Keogh said. “And I think it’s important that we talk as a community about how this incentive doesn’t change our area.”

Yeah, the important thing is a lawyer can still have a ski day. I guess that means everything is just peachy in Zoo Town.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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