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Polson commission addresses housing crisis

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POLSON — Housing – or lack of it – was at the forefront of a Polson City Commission meeting last Monday, July 19.

City manager Ed Meece and community development director Juan Escano gave the commission a rundown of efforts to address what city government is calling a “housing crisis.” 

“We’re using the word crisis not to be overly dramatic but because we feel that’s where we’re at,” Meece said. “We have businesses in the community that can’t stay open for an entire work week because they can’t find staff, staff that can’t stay in the community because they can’t find a place to live, and staff living out of their cars or moving motel to motel.”

Meece noted that there is no one solution to the lack of affordable housing in Polson and the Mission Valley at large. “It’s going to take a layered approach.” 

Right now, the city is exploring a variety of strategies, enumerated by Escano at the meeting, among them: 

• Grow the local construction and trades workforce. Ideas include developing a partnership with Salish Kootenai College to help expand training programs for plumbers, electricians and carpenters; and encouraging local contractors to hire, train and retain new construction employees. 

• Explore a variety of zoning and tax incentives that encourage affordable housing.

• Streamline the building and development application, review and approval process. 

• Develop a policy that encourages the use of pre-certified high quality pre-fabricated housing for 40 percent of the annual new housing stock in Polson for the next four years. Escano believes that approach could be incentivized with lower permitting costs, a speedier permitting process and additional Tax Increment Finance resources. The goal over four years would be to build 936 units of affordable housing. 

Both men emphasized that the strategies are still in the planning phase, with some steps already being taken. A group heads to Boise next week to look at a pre-fab housing plant there and Escano’s department is beginning to streamline the building code. 

“We have elements that contradict themselves and need to be made more compact and efficient,” he said. He aims “to get it written in a way that’s both safe and efficient to accelerate the actual building process.”

Meece added that the city plans to facilitate community conversations in August with constituents, businesses and builders about the housing crunch. At the same time, the city is looking at other communities of a similar size that have adopted innovative solutions to affordable housing. 

The city’s efforts were roundly lauded by the commission. 

Commissioner Tony Isbell, a Montana Highway Patrolman who had expressed concerns about housing at the last commission meeting, said he was pleased to see the city addressing the matter. “I definitely see people sleeping in their cars … there’s just not any place for them to live here.”

Commissioner Jan Howlett said she had been unaware of the housing plight until a recent encounter with two girls, ages 8 and 16, who walked by her house and stopped to pet her dog. They told her they used to have a dog until they lost their home and spent seven months living in their car. Fortunately, their mother is now employed and they’ve moved in with relatives. 

The conversation “stopped me totally cold,” says Howlett. “There’s more of a problem with homelessness than I realized. The city needs to play a part, and the community has to play a big part as well.”

In other business:

The city gave the go-ahead to Safeway and the Montana Department of Transportation to build an ADA accessible sidewalk from U.S. Highway 93 to the grocery store’s parking lot, and for Safeway to maintain the sidewalk. According to a Safeway representative, the project was recommended as part of an ADA compliance audit.  

Neither commissioner Carolyn Pardini nor Mayor Paul Briney supported the measure. Pardini called it a “waste of money” and a “road to nowhere,” that could become a liability issue, since there’s no pedestrian crosswalk at the entrance and exit to Safeway’s parking lot from highway 93. 

Commissioners Isbell and Brodie Moll both spoke in favor though. “Driving 93, I still see people walking on that side of the road,” said Isbell. “I hope this gets talks started and gets the ball rolling” on a sidewalk on the east side of the highway from Safeway to the Ridgewater Drive intersection.  

“It won’t cost us anything outside of plowing, and it’s a corporate partner that’s trying to do something positive, so I feel like we should go along with them,” said Moll.  

The commission also approved the appointment of Jim Ereaux to the Economic Development Council for the remainder of a three-year term that ends in December. Meece stressed the applicant’s expertise in information technology, project management, research and data analytics – all skills he believes will benefit the council.  

Meece also alerted the commission that he plans to seek their approval to expand the EDC to include members of the chamber of commerce, downtown business association and Confederated and Salish and Kootenai Tribes “so we’re in communication with those groups at all times.”

In reinvigorating the EDC, he hopes it can take on some of the challenges the city faces, such as workforce shortages, housing, and skills development “and come back with practical recommendations.” 

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