By AUSTIN SMITH
I recently gave away all of my worldly possessions and set fire to the ones that remained. It was the only alternative to renting a U-Haul that I could come up with; besides hiring a small army of mover-men or, even worse, relatives.
As a renter, it seems my worldly travels and bi-weekly budgets are dictated by 6- to 12-month lease agreements and additional pet fees. Thankfully this year’s lease was up at the beginning of August, which means my cross-town relocation didn’t coincide with the added stress of the rapidly approaching fall semester at UM.
Small lessons such as these keep me safely entrenched in my inflated self-image of ‘Master Renter’. For several years, I have safely traversed the ‘no man’s land’ that is Missoula’s rental market, covering for flaky roommates, regaining wrongfully-withheld deposits, and somehow managing to keep my 100-pound Akita fed and at my side throughout.
All of my experiences, though, can do nothing to save me from Missoula’s enduring, inescapable rental market downfall: availability.
A non-college municipality is expected to have a vacancy rate of around 10% at any given time. This means that an average of 10% of the properties zoned for residential usage will be available at any given time. Missoula’s rate historically hovers around 3.5%, perhaps dipping even lower at the beginning of UM’s fall semester and the subsequent return of non-resident students.
According to the ASUM Off-Campus Renter Center, there are approximately 10,000 student renters in the area. Off-campus student housing accounts for only 1,528 students when filled to capacity, which leaves approximately 8,500 student renters in the city’s already stressed low- to middle-income bracket. This is an influx of tenants that Missoula cannot afford however, as approximately 57% of residents are renting.
Because of these restrictions Renter Center Director Beki Hartmann encourages her students to be realistic about the obstacles they face as hopeful tenants, and to make personal decisions that will set them up for success when applying for a new residence.
“When the rental market is tight, landlords can be more picky about who they allow in their rentals and the rules they set for those rentals,” Hartmann said. “For example, the Renter Center discourages students from acquiring pets because it does make finding a rental more difficult.
“Additionally, the University does not just have traditional students, we also serve many non-traditional students who have families and are relocating to the area for our education opportunities. The adjacency of the university district to campus and the overall tightness of the rental market is just a reality they will have to face.”
Missoula’s income levels are historically lower than state averages as well. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, the city’s median household income in 2010 was $42, 887, slightly lower than the state average of $43, 872. Furthermore, 17.3% of Missoulians are living below the poverty level (the state average is 14.5%).
In addition, Missoula is geographically limited in terms of development. City ordinance prohibits development on the faces of either Mount Jumbo or Mount Sentinel. The citizenship has made it clear they will stand in the way of further development of centrally located residential areas, but at the same time is hypocritically opposed to ‘spread’.
And to date, nobody has figured out how to build a residential home, for rental or purchase, in the middle of the Clark Fork River.
Lack of Cooperation
Perhaps a by-product of the limited space and growing percentage of renters in Missoula, landlords and property management companies are gradually becoming hardened towards soured tenant relationships. Karen Smith, owner of the Fifth Street Guest House, was recently forced to step up the requirements of her application process after a renter broke their lease agreement and left one of Smith’s units an uninhabitable mess.
“I think it’s the economy, it’s making people more desperate,” Smith said. “It’s not that there are suddenly more terrible renters, but they are more ready to jump ship if they can get in to something cheaper.”
Unfortunately for all involved, Missoula has progressed to a point at which owners and tenants are equally at fault for propagating a hostile environment of distrust and intensive, multi-page applications.
Property managers feel that charging application fees, first and last month’s rent, and pet deposits will separate those who are serious about renting and willing to pay for the security of an amiable landlord-tenant relationship from potential liabilities.
Renters, though, are weary of the nickel-and-diming, the held deposits, and the increasingly invasive applications. They have become borderline hostile when addressed with the interests of their landlord, and many would relish the opportunity to wreck a unit if it would somehow make up for all the flaming hula-hoops they were forced to jump through.
As the broken leases and ruined rolls of carpet pile up in Missoula’s alleys, property managers such as the Real Estate Management Group are hoping to nip the problem in the bud by becoming proactive when transitioning a new tenant into a rental unit.
“We have them sit down and watch a PowerPoint presentation that goes through everything from legalese to ‘this is what it really means’,” Bruno Friia, Owner/CEO of REMG, said. “The average renter doesn’t understand the agreement they’re signing, so it’s a process in which we educate our renters so they understand fully the responsibilities and the benefits.”
No amount of education, however, can fix Missoula’s inherent geographical limitations and the interpersonal conflicts that come with developing new land.
The City’s Response
To their credit, city officials are indeed doing what they can to create housing opportunities, specifically low- to middle-income rental properties. The Housing section of Missoula’s Downtown Master Plan includes the addition of 2,695 housing units of varying size in areas stretching from West Broadway to the Hip Strip.
The units will maintain the traits of their respective neighborhoods, ranging from low- to high-density development and providing for both multi- and single-family units across all income brackets.
The development plan not only takes into account the necessary addition of bike lanes and alternative transportation routes, but even allocates the residential area East of Higgins Street as a “Special Neighborhood Protection Area.”
Per the Master Plan, the “character and livability of historic and established low-density neighborhoods should be shielded from inappropriate incremental multi-family housing development.” By setting aside these neighborhoods, the City of Missoula hopes to appease a constituency that has shown in the past they are not afraid to vocalize their opinions in the face of a development proposal (see Catlin & Trail).
In April 2012, it was announced that the Public Works Department granted 149% more multi-family housing unit permits in 2011 than the year before, effectively putting their money where the city’s mouthpiece is.
Thankfully, the potential development allowed by these multi-family permits and planned for in the Master Plan can indeed be achieved. As of May 2012, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allocated more than $167,900 in grants to Montana Fair Housing, to be used to eliminate housing discrimination in Montana by correcting discriminatory housing practices and overseeing the design and construction of multifamily buildings.
As you can see, the City is indeed doing its part to solve the problems within Missoula’s rental arena. The rest falls on the shoulders of property managers and renters alike: the responsibility to initiate an environment of cooperation instead of conflict, to do away with preconceived notions and remember that at the end of the day we all feel the same relief when we cross our home’s threshold.
How You Can Help
For landlords, Friia recommends a more stringent application process to determine who is serious about taking care of your property.
“Our applications are in our lobby, and it’s not unusual to see someone pick it up, put it back, and walk out,” Friia said. “Well, whatever they didn’t like in there, it served our purpose and it saved us time. It’s a ‘Silent Screening’ process.”
“Follow your instincts,” Smith agrees. “When you meet people they will put on their best face, and the few times where it has turned out to be disastrous for us were the few times I didn’t follow my gut.”
Beyond protecting themselves and their properties, management groups and private owners also have a responsibility to treat their tenants with the respect deserved of a human being and not just a product on the shelf that draws revenue. It may not be the savviest of business models to give renters benefit-of-the-doubt, but tenants and owners alike need to realize that the human element, not the business, is what often proliferates the cycle of bad blood.
“I think throughout the years we’ve been complimented that we’re so flexible and we really do try to help people out, even though we’ve been burned in the past,” Smith said. “We have kids, and I would hope when they’re out and looking around that they would be lucky enough to have someone who keeps their best interests in mind.”
Tenants would be wise to realize how little they are entitled to as renters, and how personal decisions, such as tattoos and pet ownership, will play out during their housing hunt. Hartmann encourages prospective tenants to not be disheartened in the face of an all-encompassing application, and stresses that the process is geared for the benefit of all parties.
Renters in Missoula also need to make a collective effort to be better tenants. As a group, tenants need to be respectful of the guidelines of the lease agreement and cognizant of the difficulties they create for property managers when a unit is left sub-par. Only by taking steps to be a ‘good’ tenant can renters hope to change the preconceived notions of Missoula’s property managers for the better.
“Leaving a property or a relationship with the property manager in shambles is only going to hurt yourself down the road,” Smith said. “People need to realize that the next person coming into that unit is them, figuratively speaking.”
Renters also need to realize that property managers are not giant green trolls who sit in their dank offices concocting tortuous application requirements as part of some giant conspiracy to leave low-income families out in the cold. They are people too, many of them also renters, and they are just trying to run a business so they can pay their own bills.
If you are weary of the perpetual battle of renting in Missoula, you may want to consider the jump to homeownership. Our city is special in that its housing market crash was proportionately less harsh than comparably-sized locations across the nation. The average home price is still on a downswing, currently making Missoula a buyer’s market.
“There’s a lot of new construction on the market. We see a lot of buildings going up on Mullan Road or Reserve Street toward the airport, plus a lot of in-fill building right in town, so there definitely are options for those in the proper financial position,” Nick Caras, Owner of Caras Real Estate said. “Homeownership is great if you’ll be in that particular market for an extended period of time; if you plan on moving out of the area in the next ten years though, don’t buy.
“I would also say that Missoula has its ups and downs just like any other city, but long term it’s a uniquely strong market and a great place to own a home.”
Renters seeking more information about renting in the Missoula area or Montana in general can contact Montana Fair Housing or the Montana Board of Housing. For rental listings, check the Missoula Independent, and Craigslist for local listings.
Student renters are encouraged to contact the ASUM Off-Campus Renter Center for advice, tips and tricks, recommended property managers, and legal resources.
Austin Smith is a 21-year resident of the Missoula area, and an ardent fisherman, hunter, and snowboarder. When not working on the University of Montana campus, taking classes in the Journalism program, or contributing to the social media efforts of several local organizations, he enjoys spending time outdoors with his Akita and his family.