-Sherry Devlin reporting for the Missoula Currant
MISSOULA – Moved by the stories of hardworking Missoula residents who know homelessness, convinced by two years of work by city staff members, the City Council approved a sweeping housing policy Monday night.
Now, they said, comes the hard work to refine, approve and implement the dozens of detailed code changes, policies and programs included in “A Place to Call Home: Meeting Missoula’s Housing Needs.”
“I want my Missoula and my Montana to be livable, available and affordable for everyone,” said Christine Leonard, a member of the Missoula Interfaith Collaborative and Missoula Home Coalition.
“For the well-being of our community and the next generations, we must do everything we can to make it possible to live here,” said Laurie Harris, who described her struggle to find housing and eventual decision to move in with her sister, who was also in danger of homelessness.
Now, she said, they face a future of working until they die because they cannot afford to live on Social Security alone, so steep is their monthly rent.
A woman named Bianca thanked the Interfaith Collaborative and its Family Promise program for helping her family find a home and to keep their 8-month-old baby girl.
“I love the people working at Family Promise because while we looked for housing, they gave us somewhere to lay our heads and have food on the table,” she said. “All our hard work has paid off, because now we finally found a place to call home.
“I was ready to give up. Thanks to you guys for always telling me you work way too hard to give up. I won’t give up. I will continue to work alongside all those people to ensure Missoula remains an affordable place to live.”
Presented by Eran Pehan, director of Missoula’s Office of Housing and Community Development, the 95-page housing policy is guided by four action areas:
- Align and leverage existing funding resources to support housing. This includes the establishment of a housing trust fund.
- Reduce barriers to new supply and promote access to affordable homes, including creation of an affordable housing incentive program for developers and encouragement of accessory dwelling unit construction on infill lots.
- Partner to create and preserve affordable homes. Among other things, the recommendations under this category seek to preserve Missoula mobile home parks.
- Track and analyze progress for continuous improvement.
Within each action area, Pehan listed specific programs or policies that would help to achieve those goals – and that will now be reviewed and discussed in detail, and provided as ordinances or programs to the City Council.
“Everyone who works in our community should be able to live in our community,” said Councilwoman Gwen Jones. “This is our chance.”
“What we are facing here in Missoula, as many people know, are the products of complex social and economic forces that are acting at the national and regional level, things that we can’t necessarily change,” said Councilman John DiBari. “If we think we are going to solve this problem where no other community has, we are kidding ourselves to some degree. But we should do everything we can to address affordability issues.”
Among the recommendations included in “A Place to Call Home” are subsidies for developers who build affordable housing, the donation of city land, creation of a mobile home infrastructure assistance program, smaller lot sizes and setbacks, and fewer regulations on ADU construction, to name a few.
“We are not going to build our way out of the problem, but this is a great place to start,” DiBari said.
Topping the to-do list, Pehan said, is the establishment of a housing trust fund and exploration of funding sources, including the city’s general operating funds, a mill levy, special districts, special improvement districts, bond funding and private equity.
Pehan 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-range 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.”
Not included in the housing policy, but still on the table, is inclusionary zoning.IZ policies either require or encourage new residential developments to make a certain percentage of the housing units affordable to low- or moderate-income residents.
Pehan said inclusionary zoning could be added to the plan if, after the first five years, Missoula isn’t meeting its housing goals.
What was clear on Monday night – and has been clear throughout the process of formulating “A Place to Call Home,” Pehan said, is the critical need for affordable housing.
That need was expressed by a diverse group of Missoula residents at Monday night’s council meeting.
Both the Missoula League of Women Voters and the Missoula Organization of Realtors endorsed the housing policy, touting the urgent need of many local residents.
A Missoula police officer said her coworkers don’t even make enough money to buy a median-priced home in Missoula anymore.
Added attorney Helena Maclay, “I’m 73 years old and a taxpayer and I’m still working.”
The motivating factor? The cost of housing.
Still, Maclay cautioned City Council members of the far-reaching impacts of the housing policy.
“I’m concerned that this plan is a radical change, an aggressive change,” she said.
The discussion continued for two hours but ended with approval at the policy and a pledge from all comers in the overflow crowd to continue working together.
Only Councilman Jesse Ramos voted against the policy.