East Missoula, Bonner, Lolo and Frenchtown have all doubled in population since 2000. That statement warrants a more than a little thought and gives rise to a series of questions: why did this happen, has the response kept up with the growth and what's the forecast for the future? These are rich questions, and once unpacked can bring forth mountains of information.
Here's a short take – market demand (the intense national popularity for western MT) – has brought tens-of-thousands of people here in the recent past, and driven the cost of land and housing skyward. Our wages and cost of living do not line up in any reasonable way. According to the Missoula Association of Realtors, the Housing Affordability Index has fallen every year since 2010 – that means every year that goes by, purchasing a house gets more difficult.
The quick answer to affordable housing, for most people, is to buy where the houses are cheaper: East Missoula, Bonner, Lolo and Frenchtown, hence the mad population growth in those towns. To a degree, people have traded houses for cars, buying a less costly house, and increasing their commute. Schools, sewer, roads and planning efforts have not kept pace with growth – it's just been too fast. We need to bring real effort to this issue now. If the near future looks at all like the recent past, we're on track to have a high-end city of professionals surrounded by lower cost, relatively poorly developed towns of service workers who drive a lot. I do not support this vision.
We should address affordable housing in a thorough and well-thought out manner. That means including economic development, transportation, and infrastructure in conversations about housing. We should amp up economic development efforts in the communities most affected by population growth, so these towns can retain and enhance their identities as places unto themselves, not just as suburbs of Missoula. More economic development results in less commuting, not just for work, but for the necessities of life.
Economic development requires an influx of available investment capital to these areas, for these areas. We can use tools like enterprise zones, micro-loan funds, business improvement districts and other financial incentives. At the same time, our work on transportation and infrastructure should include options beyond the one-person, one-car commute in efforts to reduce traffic congestion. The complexity of these problems deserves wide ranging conversations and multi-tiered long term solutions. If this was easy it'd be done already – but we need to begin, in earnest, and in a collaborative, creative and open manner.
When considering affordable housing, partnerships again point the way. We must partner with government and non-profit agencies and use the tools of planning to ensure home ownership is both possible and of high-quality for most all working people. Our neighborhoods and towns should reflect our income diversity, not a de-facto caste system. We can use tools like (but not exclusively) inclusionary zoning for major subdivisions, and work with land trusts to ensure the construction of long-term affordable housing.
Specifically, inclusionary zoning means a portion of the lots created in the subdivision process must be affordable. If we partner with a land trust on the “affordable” lots, the property owner would purchase only the house, while the land is held by the trust organization, so prices remain lower over the long term. This has been done successfully nationally, and locally, by organizations like North Missoula Community Development Corporation. We can do more of this in Missoula County.
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