City, county officials join interfaith leaders to outline strategies for affordable housing

Eran Pehan, director of the Missoula Office of Housing and Community Development (left), and assistant director of NeighborWorks Montana Kaia Peterson talk about how solutions suggested by the Missoula Interfaith Collaborative align with the city’s housing policy at Thursday night’s Voices 4 Housing public assembly. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

Rebecca Pettit lives in the Franklin to the Fort neighborhood and pays $1,400 a month to rent a house.

All that money going to rent means Pettit isn’t gaining any equity to buy a home. Of course, she said, houses in Missoula are too expensive anyway.

When she was a kid, her parents bought a home for $80,000. That’s not possible today.

“There are many people who have made the decision to leave Missoula because they want to get better-paying jobs or more affordable housing,” Pettit said. “In my case, I’m staying here because this is my community. This is where my family lives, this is where my friends live, and I want to raise my kids in the place where I grew up.”

The Missoula Interfaith Collaborative, along with other local organizations, held a second Voices 4 Housing public assembly Thursday night to see how the solutions they’ve suggested line up with the city’s housing policy and hear what local government has to say about those solutions.

Over the last few months, the interfaith group has engaged more than 3,000 people to help draft solutions that could help address Missoula’s affordable housing crisis. They include eliminating renter barriers, establishing a housing trust fund and creating inclusive and equitable housing types.

The suggestions will be delivered to the Missoula City Council at a later date. The city’s new housing policy is set for release on May 15.

“We definitely have room to grow and we have a lot of work we need to do,” said Eran Pehan, director of the Missoula Housing & Community Development Office.

Within the city, about 75 percent of renters who earn $35,000 a year are cost-burdened and live paycheck to paycheck.

A discussion, led by Kaia Peterson with NeighborWorks Montana, explained how the interfaith collaborative’s solutions line up with the city’s housing policy and why others can’t be implemented at the city level.

Pehan said solutions like adding a landlord liaison position to help bridge gaps between renters and landlords is already in the policy, along with a rent mitigation fund to support landlords who take risks when accepting tenants.

Introducing a housing trust fund to pay for things like permanent affordable housing, the preservation and rehabilitation of existing affordable units and assistance for first-time homebuyers also are in alignment with the policy, Pehan said.

Funding would require multiple resource streams, but would inevitably lean on property taxes, she said.

“I think the creation of an affordable housing trust fund has to balance that reality and it has to be incredibly diverse. We have to implement as many different sources as we can to mitigate the impact on property owners,” Pehan said.

Better utilizing the tax increment financing and infrastructure funds that the city already uses to create housing is another goal.

Federal entitlement dollars called Home Investment Partnership Funds have been used for decades. The city has decided to better utilize that money; the result will be more housing developments like the Villagio on the Northside and Lee Gordon Place downtown.

“In the last year, we have changed the way that we deploy those funds and have been much more strategic in that, and as a result in the next year, we are investing in the development of 200 affordable housing units in one development, the Villagio,” Pehan said in an interview.

Changing existing regulations increases the potential for diverse housing types, and the policy looks at addressing regulations that don’t impact safety, well-being and character of building projects in Missoula.

Eliminating single-family zoning and replacing it with zoning policies that conform across all neighborhoods is another goal sought by advocates, though it’s not one the city will consider, according to one official.

Advocates also look to ensure affordability measures when building density increases. Implementing inclusionary zoning, which requires a certain percentage of new housing to be available at affordable rates, is another solution.

Pehan said that right now, inclusionary zoning isn’t an option for Missoula, but may be in the future. The city isn’t considering such zoning as a solution, though some housing advocates are pressing for it. 

“We don’t think that inclusionary zoning should ever come off the table as a tool that can work in the community of Missoula,” she said. “We did a pretty thorough analysis and based on that analysis, we determined that today, the conditions aren’t quite right for inclusionary zoning in Missoula, and that’s a good thing. That means our housing prices aren’t quite high enough and aren’t escalating at a rate where inclusionary zoning will have a positive impact.”

About 10 elected officials from the city and county attended Thursday night’s assembly and voiced their support for the solutions presented by the interfaith collaborative.

City Councilman Jesse Ramos voiced his support and the importance of finding other resources besides property taxes to fund the solutions, while councilwomen Julie Merritt and Heidi West were interested in the benefits of inclusionary zoning.

Mayor John Engen said that safe housing is a right for every Missoula resident, and that opinions on the issue need to be heard at public functions like City Council meetings.

Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick wants to better collaborate with the city to address the issue. Officials hope these strategies can create a better housing situation in Missoula.

“We have created, intentionally and accidentally, really spectacularly wonderful places. People want to live in these places,” Slotnick said. “This marginal issue will always remain marginal, and will never really be dealt with, if we leave it to the work of small, well-meaning nonprofits. We have to mainstream the issue and we have to mainstream the solutions to these issues.”

Reporter Mari Hall can be reached via email at mari.hall@missoulacurrent.com.