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It’s a problem besetting almost all of the boom towns in the New West – as well as many other communities in the nation: how to keep housing affordable to the working/middle class. On February 13, at its annual goals setting meeting, the Bozeman City Commission decided that dealing with affordable housing is its top priority.

Affordable Housing: Taking Bites out of the Elephant

It’s a problem besetting almost all of the boom towns in the New West – as well as many other communities in the nation: how to keep housing affordable to the working/middle class. On February 13, at its annual goals setting meeting, the Bozeman City Commission decided that dealing with affordable housing is its top priority.

“Affordable housing is my primary goal, has been all along,’”? says Commissioner Jeff Rupp, one of three newly elected commissioners seated in January. As director of the local Human Resources Development Council (HRDC), Rupp has been intimately involved with housing issues for the past 18 years and finally ran for the city commission to see what could be done from that platform.

“I’m going to push hard to get something enacted,”? he said in an interview last week. “The focus is what I’m calling ‘work force housing’ although another term is ‘inclusionary zoning.’ The problem is huge, but I believe if we keep taking bites out of the elephant, we can deal with it eventually.”?

Rupp says there are hundreds of communities that are trying to cope with the affordable housing problem and he’s done a great deal of research to learn what approaches are being tried all over the country.

“In inclusionary zoning,”? he explains, “we establish an income level – say 80 percent of the median income in Bozeman — and before we approve a new development, we require developers to build a certain number of houses affordable to people with that income. I’m going to propose that if a development has five houses or more, they have to include one that’s affordable. Some communities have required that as high as 25 percent of houses be affordable, others as low as 10 percent. I’ll start at 25 percent and see what we can negotiate.”?

Rupp says that an important part of the plan is finding ways to keep housing within the bank of homes that are affordable as time goes by. With house prices escalating every year, there has to be a system to ensure that people don’t buy a city-mandated affordable house and resell it right away for a windfall profit. “One way to do it is to have the land belong to a land trust so the buyers only own the house,”? he says, explaining that Bozeman already has some houses in this situation which HRDC has had built. Another means is deed restrictions that require that if the house is sold within a certain number of years – ten or 15 – it remains in the “affordable housing bank.”? Rupp believes that, “After ten or 15 years of living and working in the community, paying taxes, you deserve to have built up some wealth. Then you could sell at market value.”? He notes that for most Americans, their housing equity is the only wealth they will ever have.
With his years of experience dealing with housing crises in Bozeman, Rupp says, “I want to use every tool in the box to solve this problem.”?

The work force housing initiative is different from trying to find housing for the poor. In a recent Bozeman Chronicle article, Katherine Slocom, HRDC’s housing advocate, says that at present more than 750 individuals and families are on HRDC’s waiting list for Section 8 housing vouchers (subsidized housing provided under federal law) and the wait for anyone needing federal housing assistance in Gallatin, Park or Meagher counties is two and a half years. The Chronicle reported that a new interfaith group called Family Promise has been organized in Bozeman to provide emergency housing in various churches, aimed at families made homeless by a sudden medical setback or loss of a job.

As for middle class rentals, their supply has improved in recent years. One Bozeman developer, Dab Dabney, has built several new projects that take advantage of tax benefits for developers who build apartments and keep the rents within certain parameters.

But what Rupp wants developers to help with is the fact that Bozeman’s teachers, police and firefighters and other middle class families can’t afford to buy homes. Many workers commute 30 or 40 miles one-way each day. “Gallatin County has the lowest rate of home ownership of all the non-reservation counties in Montana,”? says Rupp. “Our rate is 40 percent. The national rate is 70 percent.”?

Rupp says that one objection to the inclusionary zoning proposal is that opponents say it will lead to sprawl – if they’re required to build affordable homes inside Bozeman, developers will go outside the city limits. “Well look around, folks,”? Rupp says, “we already have it. Sprawl exists. And we’re sprawling east into Park County, we’re sprawling west of Three Forks into Broadwater County.”?

Sometimes the same people warning against sprawl object to the antidote – infill development – if it comes into their own neighborhood. Rupp expects that he’ll end up in favor of the major development proposed by Bozeman Deaconess Hospital on its land on the east edge of Bozeman. “We should grow to the east, on less fertile agricultural land,”? he says, instead of covering the entire valley floor with asphalt, concrete and lawns. “What are we going to eat in years to come if we build houses on all our richest farmland?”? But, he acknowledges, objections to the hospital’s proposal from the neighbors will be huge. “What the commission needs to do is insure that problems are mitigated, that traffic is led out onto Kagy and Haggerty Lanes without burdening the existing neighborhoods.”?

At a city commission work session on affordable housing on January 30, many participants agreed that “starter”? homes may have to be condos where the high cost of land is mitigated by building several units on relatively small parcels of land. However one contractor pointed out that condo building is not a win-win situation. For one thing, he said, it costs more to ensure condo construction than single family homes.

Rupp agrees that condos and townhouses are definitely part of the affordable housing equation. “Single home ownership may not be achievable by all,”? he says. “In an inclusionary zoning ordinance, maybe half of the affordable units would be single family homes, half condos or town homes.”?

As for those single family homes, Rupp says, “We need to let developers build on lots smaller that 5000 square feet. We need to compromise on setbacks. Instead of two homes on adjoining 5000 square feet lots, maybe we let them build three affordable homes in the same space.”?

Rupp is adamant about one thing: He wants the developers to build the homes, not just turn over the lots to an agency like his. “It takes ages for an agency like HRDC to get the financing and sign up contractors to get houses built – the developers can do it while they’re building the other homes.”?

I ask about the “old west”? solution to affordable housing: trailers. “Manufactured homes have to be part of the package,”? Rupp agrees. “If they’re on a foundation with a pitched roof, they don’t spoil anyone’s neighborhood. As for trailers, I’m worried about hanging onto the trailer parks we already have so the folks living there aren’t left out in the cold. I don’t know how long the landowners are going to resist the temptation to develop those trailer parks into something more lucrative.”?

I reminisce that when I first came back to Bozeman in the mid 1980s, there was a big controversy about the Annie Subdivision, designed at the time so mobile home owners could buy lots and put their homes down for good within the city. Then at some point, with only two or three manufactured homes in the subdivision, its name was changed to Brentwood, and it suddenly blossomed with big “unaffordable”? houses. Rupp remembered that the original developer of Annie had sold the project to someone else who changed its focus. “Apparently at that point, they hadn’t been able to sell the lots to folks with mobile homes,”? he said.

Returning to his research on how other communities are coping, Rupp notes, “Missoula’s gotten started on inclusionary zoning. And some people are going to argue that it should be voluntary. Well, Whitefish has a voluntary inclusionary zoning provision. As yet, no affordable housing has been built in Whitefish. Surprise.”?

“I’ve got a four year term on the commission,”? Rupp says, “but I figure I’ve only got two years to get this project going before growth completely overwhelms us. We just need to have three of us on the commission that have the political will to do it.”?

I promised that we’ll keep watching and hoping for the best.

About Marjorie Smith