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Experts share mixed outlook on housing

by BRET ANNE SERBIN
Daily Inter Lake | February 15, 2022 7:00 AM

The future of local housing is murky, according to presenters at the 2022 Economic Outlook Seminar presented by the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research. Experts last week shared differing opinions on the future of the Flathead’s housing market during the annual event.

Some disheartening trends portended pessimistic outlooks, like the fact that more than half of local renters are spending 30 to 50 percent of their household income on housing, according to Kalispell Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Lorraine Clarno.

The industry standard for affordable housing is that it's 30 percent or less of household income.

Clarno also provided statistics regarding changes from 2019 to 2021, revealing that Kalispell’s average household income increased from $50,294 in 2019 to $62,877 in 2020. Meanwhile, Clarno reported, the median property value shot up from $233,500 to $550,000 over the same timeframe.

Based in part on this information, Kim Morisaki with the Northwest Montana Community Land Trust said she doesn’t expect any reprieve from skyrocketing prices in the next few years.

“High-density housing is the only solution,” Morisaki said.

But other presenters at the Economic Outlook Seminar see more abundant solutions and reasons to be hopeful.

Keynote speaker Abigail St. Lawrence, a water rights attorney based in Butte, said she’s optimistic about where the state is headed. St. Lawrence views the current housing demand as a “story of our success” in shaping Montana, and the Flathead in particular, into desirable places to live.

She laid out a multifaceted approach to alleviate the strains of the current housing market.

The first prong of St. Lawrence’s prescription to address unaffordable housing was the need to “confront some uncomfortable truths about ourselves as a state.”

“We do need to embrace that uncomfortable truth that we have built the communities we wanted and now we have to address the consequences that come from that,” she urged.

Part of embracing that reality, St. Lawrence added, is to accept new residents and the demands associated with them. Those include increasing multifamily housing, focusing on infill development and destigmatizing rental properties versus home ownership.

One of the key parts of St. Lawrence’s solution is simply to build more housing. “We have to put nails in wood,” she said simply.

“Change is going to happen,” St. Lawrence warned. “Either you embrace it and you make it work and you shape it, or it happens to you and you’re probably not going to like it.”