by William Skink
Another request to hit up the taxpayer piggybank is coming from the city of Missoula, this time for the never-ending desire to acquire and maintain more “open space”. If you want to read the cheerleading for this bond, you can read this Missoulian article.
If you read the article you may notice that at no point is affordable housing referenced, which is weird, because this bond will increase the cost of housing in multiple ways.
The first hit is the bond itself, which increases property taxes. These tax increases are almost always quickly passed down-stream to renters, who have been tremendously squeezed year after year as the cost of housing has sky-rocketed. If you are a renter voting for this bond will be voting to increase your rent.
Do you think your service sector job will also increase what they are paying you?
The second hit comes from what the bond is designed to accomplish: acquire more land to keep it safe from development. While that sounds good—and probably many would-be supporters of this bond and its designed intentions don’t connect that to the cost of housing—the law of supply and demand means that less available supply to develop will make land that can be developed more valuable, making the cost of development go up, which makes housing more expensive.
One might think developers would be opposed to this, but one would be wrong. Just look at who is being tapped to lead the campaign to convince Missoulians to support increasing the cost of housing in Missoula:
Ginny Merriam, the public information and communications director for the city, said there is not yet a campaign to advocate for the ballot measure. However, the plan is for it to be co-chaired by Rick Wishcamper of the Rocky Mountain Development Group and Tracy Stone-Manning of the National Wildlife Federation.
“The initiative is community-led rather than by local government, same as the last bond,” Merriam said.
Sure, I guess a wealthy developer and former head of Montana’s DEQ are technically a part of Missoula’s community, but to consider them representative of the people who don’t benefit from their rent going up every year is disingenuous, almost like a bait and switch to take some of the heat off local government if this thing passes and the predictable increase in the cost of housing occurs.
Will local media cover the affordable housing angle of this open space bond? I hope they do. The Mayor claims he’s serious about addressing affordable housing, going so far as creating an entire housing office, yet he keeps supporting things that have the opposite impact on housing affordability.
Personally I think the entire premise of why an open space bond is “needed” should be given a long, hard look. Does Missoula really have problems attracting business, tourists and/or new residents? No, Missoula doesn’t have that problem, but that won’t stop Engen from making the following argument for why the taxpayer piggy bank should keep shaking out millions of dollars:
Engen said that having well-maintained open spaces for recreation provides an economic boost to the area.
“We had an Innovate UM symposium a month and a half ago, and we had executives from tech companies describing Missoula as a mountain headquarters,” he said. “All of this goes to quality of life. People want to live in nice places and want to do business in nice places. Open space helps attract and retain help in nice places where people can thrive and businesses can do well.”
Engen said he feels both the 1995 and 2006 bonds provided a valuable return on investment for city and county taxpayers.
What, exactly, is the return on investment? More people from the coasts moving to Missoula, driving up the cost of housing? More congestion on our roads? More tourists on our rivers? Larger property tax bills? More open space for homeless camps?
I wish the Mayor would be more specific about these returns on investment Missoulians supposedly get for financially enabling the purchase and maintenance of open spaces, and if those returns are worth the cost of making housing in Missoula less affordable.
Is it worth making more people on fixed income choose between things like groceries or medications? Is it worth putting a starter home for a young family further out of reach? Is it worth adding to the cost burden so many are already experiencing, leaving less discretionary money to do gratuitous things, like eating out once in a while or going to a movie?
Missoula has already passed tens of millions of dollars in bonds for schools and parks. But it’s never enough. There seems to always be more maintenance that is needed (and not budgeted for in the initial asks), or some new parcel to purchase, or some easement to obtain.
All of this contributes to the affordability crisis we are STILL EXPERIENCING in Missoula. If the Mayor wants people to believe he is serious about addressing this problem, he needs to stop advocating for the very things that have contributed to the affordability crisis in the first place.