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Missoula County housing plan explores regulatory relief, incentives for affordability

Missoula housing growth
Posted at 1:17 PM, Oct 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-22 18:54:23-04

MISSOULA — With a housing shortage close to 2,500 units, Missoula County officials don’t believe the market will produce enough homes to meet demand any time soon – a factor that could continue to drive local housing and rental prices, and the region’s low vacancy rate.

Still, Missoula County is pressing forward with a Housing Action Plan that could help streamline the development process and use other tools to boost the metropolitan area’s housing stock. Doing so will take time, but a good plan may be the first place to start.

County planner Jordan Lyons described the area’s housing crunch as a “wicked problem.”

“It doesn’t have one obvious solution. It has many contrary indicators that are very complex, and it has a lot of trade-offs in addressing it,” he said. “It’s not a top-down answer we can just plug into. We need to find solutions that are appropriate to Missoula County.”

The county earlier this year began taking steps to create a housing policy, something the city created several years ago. The county has already created a steering committee comprised of developers, nonprofits and community leaders to help find solutions.

Lyons said other existing plans and data have been helpful, including the city’s housing policy and reports prepared by the Missoula Organization of Realtors. The county’s existing growth policy also plays a role.

The growth policy calls for a wide range of housing choices, “especially for those who are homeless or experiencing high costs for housing relative to income.”

“We all know housing affordability is a real challenge in Missoula County right now,” said Lyons “We currently have a shortage of around 2,400 housing units in Missoula County. That’s kind of what drives high purchase prices, high rents and low vacancy rates.”

Lyons said the market won’t produce enough units to meet existing demand anytime soon, especially for those with low- to moderate incomes. But new strategies could soon come into play to support housing production.

Ideas on the table each come with various impacts and trade-offs, Lyons suggested. They range from removing regulatory barriers, waiving development charges, allocating funding to bolster housing, and gifting public land for housing.

“That can have a lot of impact to give money or give land, but they’re going to be really resource intensive and have other impacts,” said Lyons. “We have other things as well that can be moderate in their resource intensity and their impact on affordability.”

While the county is limited in some ways in its ability to create change, Lyons said it does have opportunities. Among them, it could invest in infrastructure, create zoning to create more certainty, and explore ways to improve the permitting process.

“If we want to incentivize affordable housing, we have to have zoning to do that,” Lyons said. “The whole purpose of that is to provide more certainty and predictability for developers, making this fast, cheaper and less risky.”

While regulatory relief could play a big part in solutions, those behind the plan said it won’t alone solve the problem. It’s just one tool in the toolkit being explored. Allowing a mix of housing types through zoning and other uses could also help.

“In the more urbanized areas, you’ll see in the zoning code some opportunities to mix it up and provide a wide range of housing types,” said county planner Karen Hughes. “In the more dense areas, people want to see a mix of not just housing types, but uses.”

The planning board is expected to review a draft of the Housing Action Plan in December, followed by action from county commissioners early next year.