Missoula And The Never-Ending Study Machine

by William Skink

Tracking housing policy in Missoula is beginning to feel like being in the movie Groundhog’s Day. Am I going crazy, experiencing the same thing over and over again, or is there an actual need to keep STUDYING and STUDYING a problem that keeps getting WORSE and WORSE?

When I left my job at the Poverello Center in 2016 the director at the time, Eran Pehan, was also leaving her job. Later that year Mayor Engen announced why:

“I’ve become increasingly frustrated that we don’t have a housing policy here in the city of Missoula,” Engen said. “Nor do we have much intentionality around the way we make public investments in housing. The way we get there is to have a team dedicated to creating a policy and executing that policy.”

As presented, Eran Fowler Pehan, executive director of the Poverello Center, would serve as director of the city’s new housing office. Engen lauded Pehan for working through the challenges of building the new homeless shelter.

Pehan, who will start this July, will establish the new housing office and bring several grant programs into the municipal operation. Currently, the city contracts with Missoula County to manager the grants.

By the end of 2018, it was becoming clear some on city council were getting frustrated at a lack of progress, as evidenced by this article, titled Patience: Missoula’s long-sought housing policy nears public debut. From the link:

Nearly two years after its creation, the Housing Policy Steering Committee is nearing the end of its journey and will bring its recommendations to the Missoula City Council next spring.

Until then, the committee’s proposals will remain under wraps, raising the anticipation around what Missoula’s first-ever housing policy might look at, and how it will address what’s emerging as a stubborn national challenge – affordability.

After the working groups and steering committees and studies went through their various processes, a 95 page document was unveiled in May of last year:

Reducing the barriers to development and subsidizing construction of affordable housing – including the donation of city land and possible taxation through a bond or levy – emerged among the recommendations in the city of Missoula’s new housing policy.

Unveiled on Wednesday, the 95-page document offers a suite of recommendations intended to address the cost of housing and ensure that “a slow emergency doesn’t become a full-blown crisis.”

Now that a pandemic has created the term ZOOM TOWN, the inaccurately framed “slow emergency” has become a full-blown crisis.

With the full-blown crisis having arrived, one might assume the years of work that went into creating a 95 page foundational document for housing policy in Missoula would mean we could maybe hold off on doing any new studies, but NO.

For some goddamn reason that leaves me mystified and a bit enraged, I read a headline last Friday that had the audacity to tell me about how a REGULATORY STUDY seeks ways to streamline development, affordable housing in Missoula.

I guess nearly the entirety of Trump’s first term in office wasn’t enough time to adequately study housing regulations in Missoula, so they’ve been doing it again for the past six months:

After a roughly six-month study, Design Workshop in collaboration with the City of Missoula presented a series of recommendations this week designed to make housing more affordable in Missoula through a streamlined process.

“We’ve been able to discover things that I don’t think we would have done if we just said: ‘OK, now’s the time. Review your subdivision regulations and update them,’” said Laval Means, manager of Planning Services Manager. “Here we really had an opportunity to do that deeper dive and collect a lot of great insights through many different processes and evaluations. It’s going to really enrich how we can improve our processes.”

So, around the same time a global pandemic and subsequent shutdown got going, our enlightened city braintrust was embarking on a process of studying how to improve city processes that already had three years of previous processes invested because back then the Mayor was frustrated the city wasn’t being INTENTIONAL enough with its housing policy.

I really do find it dumbfounding that these studies and surveys just keep happening over and over again. Maybe that publicly funded communication plan Spyder’s consulting firm is putting together will help explain it all to simpleton’s like me.

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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