Polson discusses the housing crisis
The town of Polson estimates that nearly 1,000 additional housing units are needed over the next four years to meet the demands of a growing population, and the town’s process to meet that goal took another step on Friday with a gathering at Blodgett Creamery on Main Street. .
“The need is so obvious and jumps out at us,” said Jody Perez, executive director of the Salish and Kootenai Housing Authority. “Even when we get funding (for new housing), we can’t find entrepreneurs.”
Perez was one of five panelists who spoke and answered questions at the event hosted by the city, which billed it as an “honest conversation about housing.” Joining Perez: Juan Escano, director of community development for Polson; State Representative Linda Reksten from House District 12; Lake County Commissioner Bill Barron; and Polson City manager Ed Meece.
The event attracted around fifty people, including several promoters, entrepreneurs and local leaders. The two-hour conversation sometimes strayed from the topic of housing, but that only illustrated the magnitude of the problem. Many local employers are struggling to build a workforce, as the pool of eligible employees able to live locally – or even commuting distance – appears to have dried up.
Questions have also been raised about infrastructure, mainly on how the city will be able to maintain and extend its roads and its water and sewer networks under the crushing of the influx of people. Some have noted that local law enforcement and emergency services are also more than stressed.
Reksten said she is doing her best to direct state money to help Lake County, and she hopes Gianforte’s administration can find a way to use the funding from the American Rescue Plan. Act to help with the local housing crisis.
Escano stressed that the problems go beyond funding, however.
“We can’t build enough because we don’t have the manpower to build. We can’t get away with it. It must be accompanied by a policy.
Commissioner Barron said the county had added about 3,100 residents since April alone.
“The big bang has been happening since COVID hit,” he said. “Now they can work from home – our Internet is improving. “
The topic of short-term rentals, like the ones listed on Airbnb, and how they can make the housing problem worse was also discussed. Barron said there are at least 470 of these units in the county, and even where they exist in areas that prohibit such use, the county does not have the resources to control it.
“People do it whether it’s zoned or not,” said Barron, adding that regulating short-term rentals can be a perilous legal endeavor.
Escano said the city is considering financial incentives to promote more high-quality prefabricated buildings as a short-term solution.
“You can stick with construction as is traditionally done, or you can do prefab to get more investment on the ground faster,” he said. “We are not going to force anyone, but rather encourage them.”
The same is true for many of the downtown second floor units that traditionally served as housing but have been converted into storage. Escano said he believes financial incentives could reverse this trend as well.
Developer Mike Maddy suggested the city consider revising its impact fees to promote more construction. Impact fees are levied by the city on new projects to cover the cost of any new infrastructure needed.
City manager Meece said reducing or eliminating impact fees is not the way to go.
“At the end of the day, someone has to pay (for the infrastructure),” Meece said. He said the problem with reducing these fees is that it puts the burden on existing residents for the benefit of new ones.
Meece said there may be room for temporary adjustments to impact fees on certain types of developments such as small house clusters.
On a related note, Escano said he and city staff have been reviewing Polson’s clearance process for ways to speed it up.
“Building and development codes are being streamlined. “
A woman in attendance said she recently heard a man brag about buying 18 properties in a single day and asked what can be done to get strangers to buy everything.
After a long moment of silence, Perez blurted out, “Build a wall,” causing a burst of laughter.
Escano and Perez also discussed a county-wide housing assessment that is currently underway. They hope to have completed the assessment by the end of the year. Escano said that once this is done, a comprehensive action plan can be developed and implemented.
“We need a better definition of what’s going on,” Escano said.
Friday’s discussion was moderated by Polson Chamber of Commerce President Brian Miskimins. David King of David W. King Pictures filmed the event. It can be viewed on Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/589890089.