Occupancy standards coming to a head

| April 11, 2002

With the day of reckoning for the proposed occupancy standards approaching, battle lines are being clearly drawn.

In recent weeks two prominent city entities have come out against the proposal and a local non-profit group has issued a study of its potential impacts. Meanwhile, at Monday’s city council meeting, Ward 4 Councilman Myrt Charney added a new twist by offering to become Missoula’s point man for overcrowding complaints.

Charney supports the occupancy standards but is not sure about their legality and says that one way or another the matter will be decided in court. In the meantime, he says, stronger enforcement of existing laws is needed for safety reasons. He cites a house fire last weekend that may have been influenced by overcrowding.

“Missoula got a warning over the weekend,” Charney says. “This stuff about rowdiness has a bearing, but my primary concern is safety. That really brought it home.”

The citizen-drafted proposal would limit the number of non-related people who can live together. The areas around the University of Montana would be the most restrictive, with no more than three unrelated roommates allowed.

The public hearing on the occupancy standards proposal is set for May 6. So far the council has given every indication of being evenly split on the issue. In recent weeks the Missoula Office of Planning and Grants (OPG) issued a staff report that recommended denying the proposal, and the Consolidated Planning Board came out against it as well.

The local non-profit group Women’s Opportunity and Resource Development (WORD) issued an analysis of the proposed law last week based on the group’s work with a number of other community and university groups. The report echoed the OPG and the Planning Board’s concerns about the effectiveness and legality of the proposal, but it focused mainly on issues of affordable housing.

“People aren’t living in close quarters because they like standing in line to use the bathroom every morning,” the study reads. “It’s an affordability issue.”

The study finds that in communities with aggressive occupancy standards like Boulder and Fort Collins, Colo., vacancy rates have shrunk in the last decade while housing costs have risen dramatically. WORD recommends rejecting the proposal, appointing a citizen-government committee to review existing laws and how they are enforcement, and appointing an affordable housing task force. Ward 6 Councilman Clayton Floyd agrees that more housing needs to be built, but maintains that the occupancy standards would bring down rents.

“Part of the reason rents are rising right now is that landlords know when they have allowed a larger than normal number of people to occupy a home that they can actually get by with charging more rent for that home,” he says.

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