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Missoula housing advocates lining up behind Grant Creek zoning request

Posted at 9:02 AM, May 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-10 11:02:14-04

MISSOULA - While opponents of a zoning change to a lower Grant Creek property maintain their opposition for reasons widely expressed over the last two years, housing advocates have come out in support of the project, saying greater housing supply is needed to stabilize prices and create opportunity.

KJA Development LLC is seeking a zoning change on roughly 44 acres of ground off Interstate 90 in lower Grant Creek and has imposed a cap of 700 units, or slightly more than what’s permitted in current zoning.

Those additional units could help meet a number of housing needs, advocates argued on Monday night.

“It’s no secret that within this community, housing is a dilemma. We have a lack of units, a lack of stock and a lack of affordability,” said Riley Jacobson. “The only way we can begin to address this issue is by creating more units.”

The City Council considered and denied a similar request by KJA two years ago and since then, the city’s housing challenges have only become more dire. But many of the concerns that prompted the city to oppose the project also remain, and opponents have again mustered the resources to push for denial.

While concerns over traffic could be mitigated, concerns over fire safety linger. City and county fire officials are expected to offer input in the coming weeks as the proposal grinds its way through the public process.

But supply and demand is also playing a stronger role this time around, and advocates of boosting the city’s housing supply are speaking out. The city can’t begin to address issues of affordability unless it provides more housing, regardless of price.

“We need more vacancy in our town,” said Hanna Kosel. “It’s defeating every day to work with tenants who have families and are working and give so much to our community and don’t have a place to stay and rest and call home.”

Project representatives said current market demand calls for two- and three-bedroom units, and the proposal would be one of the few projects in Missoula to offer three-bedroom rentals. But the city’s denial of the request two years ago and the ongoing debate have led to higher prices.

That, the developers said, is a function of the market in a city with a vacancy rate of less than 1%. The lack of inventory and delays in construction have and will continue to push rent prices higher in all neighborhoods.

“We’re already a year-and-a-half behind on this project,” said developer Ken Ault. “The more we waste time on this, the more we have to cover it. Construction costs were at an all-time high 18 months ago. Labor was at an all-time high. All we had on our side was interest rates, and now they’re going up.”

State law forbids the City Council from placing conditions on zoning, and the council’s space to approve or deny the request is narrow. The price of the end unit is not among the criteria that can be considered, though some council members have been asking about rental prices.

For that, city staff has offered caution, saying price is not a relevant part of their decision.

“That’s not one of the criteria under state law or local regulations,” said city planner Dave DeGrandpre. “It’s definitely not one of the statutory review criteria. I’d be careful.”