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Reporting that there's an affordable housing crisis in this city is like pointing out that there's a knapweed problem on Mt. Jumbo. Everyone sees the problem plain as day, but only recently has anyone measured how pervasive the infestation has become.

Several weeks ago, the Missoula Housing Authority (MHA) released the findings of its Available Land Survey which confirms what every developer and affordable housing advocate in town has long known and struggled with: Land available for residential development is terribly scarce, and the problem will only worsen in the next century.

The MHA land survey measured how much property is zoned for both commercial and residential development in Missoula's so-called Urban Growth Area, that imaginary line encircling the city inside which municipal services and infrastructure-like sewer, water lines, fire and EMS coverage-are provided.

The survey, which includes both undeveloped and underdeveloped property with sewer improvements, shows that the total amount of residential and commercial land "available" for development amounts to about 945 acres, of which 684 acres is zoned residential.

Although 684 acres might sound like a sizable chunk of land, keep in mind that in order for a house to meet the federal Housing and Urban Development definition of "affordable," it must cost a household less than 30 percent of its gross income, including such expenses as utilities, mortgage payments, insurance, and taxes.

"People don't choose to build projects on the outskirts of town because it's fun. It's because they can't find cheaper land in town."-Nancy Leifer, MHA.

In Missoula County, the median income for a family of four is $41,300, but the average price of a house (zoned at four houses per acre) is $122,625. Without getting buried waist-deep in the math, the only way to increase the availability of affordable housing is to increase the number of housing units per acre, according to MHA housing coordinator Nancy Leifer.

But how much land is now zoned for residential development at seven units or more per acre, which is the rock-bottom density on the affordable housing cost curve? About 88 acres, according to the land survey.

"The vast majority of available land is geared toward suburban-style living," says Leifer. "But the era of suburban sprawl is over. Investing at that density is just not cost-effective anymore."

This problem is hardly a new one. As far back as the 1975 Missoula Urban Comprehensive Plan-the city's first modern effort to steer the course of growth and development-city planners recognized that the structural problem underlying affordable housing lay first and foremost in finding land to put it on.

"Most areas allocated for multi-family housing are generally built out," read the 1990 update of the 1975 Comp Plan. "They lack the larger tracts of vacant land on which large developments can be constructed. These are more likely to be found in fringe areas, where the predominant land use is single family housing."

What has changed in the last ten years, besides the price of land and the population of Missoula? Not much, according to Missoula architect James Hoffmann, who would like to build more high-quality affordable housing in Missoula, if he could only find affordable land to put it on.

"This community is so picked over, that in order to develop it, you have to own the property first," says Hoffmann.

Hoffmann, who has developed several award-winning affordable housing projects in Missoula, says that the recent housing survey paints a misleading portrait of the market, because it refers to all land zoned as residential as "available," regardless of whether it is now, or ever will be, for sale.

"There's just nothing out there, and it's driving the price way up," says Hoffmann.

What further stymies affordable housing development is the enormous overhead involved in developing multi-family housing , especially in communities where residents are vehemently opposed to it. Hoffmann says that even a small, 10-unit development "can cost six months of preparation and about $15,000 just to find out if it's doable."

Meanwhile, the growth in the number of Missoula's households, projected to be about 11 percent between now and 2003, will require about 700 new housing units each year, says Leifer. With the fastest growing sectors of the economy being in retail and service industry jobs, at least half of those will need to be higher density to be affordable.

Perry Ashby of Wesmont Builders and Developers wonders how that will be accomplished in an environment with "a very pervasive, obstructionist mentality."

"There is absolutely minuscule acreage of residential land in town," says Ashby, who is now developing land on the outskirts of Missoula and in industrial zones, to keep costs down and prices affordable. "It's just a sad state of affairs."

Ashby, Hoffmann, Leifer and others involved in affordable housing development agree that the city needs to confront its restrictive zoning laws and open up more land for higher density development.

Leifer admits that the land survey is only the first step in tackling the problem. The next phase of the survey will look at projected income levels, housing demands and affordability.

Another solution is to promote what are known as Accessory Dwelling Units, or ADUs-small houses, garage apartments or backyard cottages that can be built on existing residential properties. ADUs, says Leifer, can contribute to the housing market without requiring new infrastructure, they provide income to the existing household, and add stability to a community.

"If we become just another yuppified, upper-class, Northern Rockies community," says Hoffmann, "it's not going to be such a swell place to live anymore."

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