The Sacrifices And Opportunities Of Missoula’s Affordable Housing Crisis

by William Skink

Yesterday the housing recommendations were finally unveiled. I haven’t had the time to start looking at it yet, but I’ve been reading the reporting to get a sense of the PR effort involved to unroll things that are not going to be well received. That’s why the word “sacrifice” is used. So how can the Mayor help brand the bitter pills?

What better brand than Missoula itself? In the quote below Engen strongly emphasizes how uniquely Missoula this effort has been. From the link:

The effort won’t come without sacrifices and tough choices by city residents and representatives, along with some significant changes to current policy. Mayor John Engen said it’s “an extraordinarily heavy lift,” but Missoula’s affordable housing crisis isn’t going to resolve itself and people deserve to have a place they can call home.

“All hard work leads to more hard work. Now it will require ongoing community conversations,” Engen said. “There’s questions about its adoption, philosophy, values and resources. None of that will happen in a vacuum, either.

“What I can tell you is this is a Missoula effort and we engaged in a Missoula way and these will be Missoula solutions. It’s a dramatic step forward in finding solutions that the lion’s share of our community agrees we should tackle head on.”

A Missoula effort, a Missoula way, and Missoula solutions. Got that Missoula?

Well, is it?

One of the recommendations is to promote infill by loosening regulations on ADUs (Additional Dwelling Unit). The recommendations stopped short of suggesting changing single-family zoning to multi-family zoning. Why? Because the ask of having “those people” (socio-economically less advantaged renters who live in apartment complexes) in the affluent enclaves of Missoula would probably trigger a privileged revolt.

West of Missoula, in California, there are very similar conversations happening. Despite the Mayor’s branding effort of being uniquely Missoula, California is also heading in a similar direction, except some are advocating for eliminating single-family zoning. Here’s an excerpt from an LA Times piece titled California could bring radical change to single-family-home neighborhoods:

Across the state, communities big and small, wealthy and poor, north and south, coastal and inland have large sections zoned for single-family homes. The wealthy Bay Area town of Atherton sets aside at least 95% of its land for single-family housing, according to the UC Berkeley survey. Between half and three-quarters of the developable land in Sacramento and Stockton is also reserved for single-family homes, the survey said.

Recently, policymakers in California and across the country have scrutinized single-family zoning as housing affordability problems have become more acute.

Three years ago, state legislators passed two bills aimed at making it easier to build small accessory homes in backyards. Since then, applications to build secondary units have increased by the hundreds in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other larger coastal communities.

So, not only does Missoula get California transplants fleeing in-land, which is contributing to high demand and driving up housing prices, but we are also getting policy recommendations. Great.

Another recommendation is a bond or levy to create a housing trust fund. This is another very difficult ask, but a strategically brilliant one as it gives Missoulians an opportunity to say no. And if we say no, well, I guess we are just selfish and not willing to “sacrifice” enough for affordable housing.

For more on this one, here is the Missoula Current’s reporting. The BOLD is all me:

The policy encourages the city to establish a housing trust fund, and it offers a number of potential sources of revenue. They include the city’s general fund, a mill levy, a bond, and seeking out private equity.

Eran Pehan, director of the Office of Housing and Community Development, said the fund would operate as a revolving loan with a competitive application process. Such a fund “is essential to provide the consistency and predictability” that enable long-rang planning and multi-year housing projects to move forward.

But the city doesn’t have a large amount of discretionary revenue to allocate toward a trust fund. Rather, it points to a perpetual mill levy and a voter-approved bond as the “optimal approach.”

I call bullshit. The city absolutely does have a large amount of discretionary revenue it could allocate toward a trust fund, and that money is parked in the Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s piggy bank.

How much money is in that piggy bank? I haven’t dug deeply into the answer to that question, but a credible source told me 35 million dollars. And how much of that money–PUBLIC MONEY I should add–is the city planning on investing in the convention center at the Fox Theater site? More than half, I’ve heard.

I find it troubling that the sources of revenue listed in the article includes the general fund, but conspicuously omits MRA. The way MRA functions– siphoning public money from the general fund to prime the pumps of gentrification–has greatly contributed to the affordability crisis in Missoula. Apparently the Mayor’s slush fund for development isn’t being asked to make sacrifices like Missoula’s taxpayers are being asked.

There will be some role for MRA to play in all this. Here’s more from the MC piece:

City department heads, including those leading Parks and Recreation and Development Services, pledged their support for the policy recommendations. So too did the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, which will play a role in achieving some of the goals around affordable housing.

Properties ripe for development within the city’s urban renewal districts include areas around Southgate Mall, the current public library site, and parcels off both California and Scott streets, among others.

“We have a lot opportunity,” said Ellen Buchanan, director of MRA. “We need to figure out where we want to prioritize and where we spend our resources, but all of those are in urban renewal districts, and a lot of them are in opportunity zones.”

As all this gets rolled out, there are two very important questions to keep in mind:

1. Who is being asked to make sacrifices?

2. Who will benefit from the opportunities?

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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