Stability at last



Missoula eases its housing crisis

But rents and mortgages remain out of reach for many

If you haven't lived here long enough to see the difference, just ask someone who has: Finding a place to call your own is substantially easier than it once was.

"Back in '92 or '93, when I first started looking for apartments in Missoula, there just wasn't anything around, even the paper was empty," says Rob Mandel, a former University of Montana student. "I got to pick and choose this last time around. I mean, it's almost like a real city now."

And it's true. In the early 1990s, apartment hunters had perhaps two or three choices in the classified section of the daily newspaper; houses for rent were practically nonexistent. At the time, real estate professionals blamed the dearth of homes on a building bust in the 1980s.

Now, those same experts describe the years Mandel first started looking for an apartment as the beginning of a recovery period for Missoula's housing market. And as the decade comes to a close, prices have stabilized and availability has substantially improved.

A quick look at the numbers tell a tale that even a real estate neophyte can understand.

More than any other number, Missoula housing coordinator Nancy Leifer says, the best indicator for a healthy market is an area's vacancy rate-the percentage of properties that remain vacant at any given time. A healthy vacancy rate is considered to be within the 5 to 6 percent range. Several housing specialists estimate Missoula's to be between 3 and 4 percent. Missoula spent the early '90s with a sub-1 percent vacancy rate.

Brought on by a stagnant housing market unprepared for substantial population growth in the mid to late-80s, Missoula found itself in crisis mode in the first days of this decade, says Leifer.

"Between 1982 and 1986 a lot of building companies from the first wave of growth folded. When the next wave came in there wasn't enough supply to hold them off," says Leifer. "Missoula's housing market has always been cyclical... and we're at the top again."

So what's changed?

Supply. With new homes materializing all around what were once just fringes of the Garden City, and "below market" housing projects that have netted nearly 1,200 affordable housing units since 1992, those attracted to this area are finding plenty of room at the inn-so long as they don't come here broke.

"As far as I can tell the market is specialized and it's fairly even for buyers and sellers," says Ed Mayer, executive director for the Missoula Housing Authority. "There are a lot of houses in the $140,000 to $180,000 range without a lot of people able to afford that. The market is brisk at the lower end-houses that are $120,000 or lower."

Mayer says during the housing crisis in the early '90s, prices were increasing at 15 percent a year. Though the market has stabilized now, and there is some evidence of rents falling, Missoula has experienced a 50 percent increase in housing costs since the beginning of the decade without a commensurate increase in wages.

According to statistics complied by Leifer, in 1990 the average two bedroom apartment would set you back $340. In April 1998, that same pad would cost you $543. Rents across the board are around 60 percent more than they were eight years ago. The average income, however, has only increased from $18,790 in 1990, to $21,814 in 1996.

In 1990 the average cost of a home was a paltry $70,448. In 1996 it was $124,942. An average Missoula family of four took home $30,000 in 1990. In 1996 they made around $40,000.

"Missoula has lost a substantial percentage of low-income families who have left the area. We've changed our complexion because of a kind of gentrification," Mayer says. "So the market has softened, but prices have been ratcheted up a bit."

But according to the most recent Montana Department of Commerce statistics, Missoula is far from the most expensive area to live in. The average monthly mortgage payment here is $765. But in Billings it's $899 and in Bozeman it's $848. Even Kalispell is a little more expensive at $772. According to the same statistics, however, Bozeman is the only community where the average rent is higher.

Mayer believes the future of Missoula's housing situation rests squarely in the hands of elected officials. The more local jurisdictions resist growth, he says, the more expensive and exclusive housing becomes.

"In one sense we're doing a balancing act... economic vitality is an absolute necessity," he says.

Erica Soon Olsen and Eddie LaMar of Allied Van Lines discuss the particulars of Olsen's move back to San Francisco. With Missoula's vacancy rate the highest it's been in nearly a decade, renters are having an easier time of the housing search. Phot by Lise Thompson.


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