Scads of new residential buildings are rising in Missoula, projects with hundreds of new apartments to welcome the city's huddled masses for the right price. But with the county adding 2,150 residents yearly, even a full-fledged building boom may not be enough to keep Missoula's housing supply proportionate to its population.
Some math: During the six years following the 2010 census, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Missoula County added 6,700 people.
At the countywide average of 2.2 people per residence, keeping up with those new arrivals would mean adding more than 3,000 homes and apartments to the Missoula area's stock. But the Census Bureau, which also keeps tabs on housing counts, says the county added only 2,200 units in that time, leaving an 800-unit gap.
And that tightness of supply is part of what's pushing up housing costs faster than local incomes.
Even with decreasing enrollment at the University of Montana, the vacancy rate in Missoula's rental market declined to just under 3 percent last year, according to data compiled by local Realtors. A healthy vacancy rate, enough to keep rents stable, is closer to 5 percent.
Realtors' data also indicate the city's for-sale market is undersupplied as well, with too few homes available at price points below $425,000. As a result, the median sale price for a Missoula-area home climbed 6.8 percent last year, to a record high of $255,000.
As for local wages? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, average pay rose by a modest 2.6 percent in 2016, to $39,500.
The city's planning director, Mike Haynes, says Missoula's construction flurry may be enough to bring renters and homebuyers some relief. He says he's seeing an "encouraging" level of activity, enough that it "should address some of the imbalances there have been in the market."
Last year, Haynes says, the city issued building permits for 775 houses, apartments and condos. At the 2.2 people-per-home ratio, that's enough to provide housing for more than 1,500 Missoulians once construction wraps up.
And in the first eight months of this year, he adds, the city has issued another 570 permits.
"We are starting to get ahead of the curve—or at least we will when those units come online," he says.
However, with census statisticians pegging Missoula proper at 1,500 new residents a year, residential construction inside the city appears to be just barely keeping pace. The story outside city limits may be worse. Missoula County issued permits for roughly 150 units last year as population grew by 680.
"We just don't have enough," says Karen Hughes, the county's assistant planning director. She adds that the county and city are working with Realtors and others to study the issue, trying to figure out what they can do to make sure Missoula gets the housing it needs.
"I think there's a real common interest in doing some problem-solving," she says. A report is due in the coming months.