Trading places 

Suburban development and affordable housing

If you look at Canyon Creek Village from just the right angle, the Missoula housing development looks like a replica of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry: clean, calm streets with mothers wheeling babies in strollers, front porches with flags and decorative pumpkins, even a few white picket fences. For Canyon Creek Village fan and Missoula County Commissioner Barbara Evans, the planned community typifies what America is all about.

“I would like to see people have their American Dream, which is to own their own home and have a little yard where their kids can play,” says Evans.

Evans’ evocation of an American Dream with tiny yards is dead on. In Canyon Creek Village, there’s not much room for backyard volleyball or touch football. The streets are narrow, the plots are small and there isn’t much space between neighbors’ walls. But in this case, smaller means cheaper—a quality Evans was after when she lobbied her fellow county commissioners on the project a few years ago.

Canyon Creek resident Dede Hert says she’s dreamed of home ownership for a long time.

“I was tired of throwing away money,” says Hert. “I wanted to get something for my money. I wanted to be able to do whatever I wanted with my own house. A lot of apartments won’t let you put up borders or paint or anything.”

Hert says her search yielded little in her price range until she stumbled onto an on-line listing for Canyon Creek.

“It was the price that got me to move here,” she says. “The price for a new home here was less than older homes in town.”

Located three miles west of downtown Missoula on the north side of Expressway, Canyon Creek sticks out as an atypical development. Plopped down in the industrial area, the homes seem to have grown out of nothing—surrounded mostly by vacant lots and the turned earth of more planned development. Formerly owned by the county, the land was rezoned three years ago from industrial to high-density residential and purchased by developer Perry Ashby. To Ashby, the logic behind the project is simple.

“The more houses you can put per acre, the less you have to pay per lot unit,” says Ashby. “Quite simply, that’s how we’ve been able to keep the prices down.”

Since the 2000 transaction, Ashby has built 105 homes, sold 130, and has another 300 to complete. As non-traditional and removed from the city center as it may seem, the development is exactly what some affordable housing advocates are championing.

“What Perry and others are doing is proving beyond a shadow of doubt that there is a demand for lower-cost single family homes,” says Deb Halliday of the nonprofit Center for Policy Analysis & Community Change. “One of the solutions to the affordable housing problem is to make it easier for folks to do high-density developments in our community.”

The Center, part of Missoula’s Women’s Opportunity and Resource Development, released a study last week on the housing market in the West. The Missoula section of the study found that the price of homes is far outpacing increases in wages. From 1997 and 2001, housing costs in the county increased 31 percent, while incomes rose 6 percent, according to the study. This discrepancy is pricing more than half of all Missoulians out of the housing market, says Halliday.

Canyon Creek and a similarly dense development—developer Bob Brugh’s mixed-use Hellgate Meadows tucked behind Home Depot, with room for about 400 traditional houses, duplexes, row houses and apartments—are offering a solution Halliday likes.

Halliday’s research found that the average price of a Missoula house is $161,500, and the average price of a newly constructed home is $209,900. With homes starting at $112,000 in Canyon Creek and planned row houses estimated to start at around $115,000 in Hellgate Meadows, the homes are some of the most affordable in Missoula.

But rezoning land for dense neighborhoods with narrow streets and small yards isn’t always popular with Missoulians who like the peace and quiet of traditional, spacious zoning.

“Over the years, I have seen developers come in and want to take a piece of land and rezone it so they could have higher density, and therefore less expensive housing, and the neighbors all around it protest it and kill it,” says Commissioner Evans. “As long as that is part of the picture, being able to do affordable housing is very difficult.”

When Ashby and Brugh began their projects, there were no surrounding residents to complain, but available land for similar developments is disappearing. Mired as it is in controversy, the rezoning of suburban land shouldn’t be the only option affordable housing advocates explore, Halliday says. While HomeWORD is pushing to rezone parts of Mullan Road where sewer expansion makes dense development easier, Halliday also advocates smart, affordable urban infill. HomeWORD and Missoula County Commissioner Bill Carey are exploring a cooperative housing project in which buyers invest in a building and own their own apartments.

While Halliday and her peers search for more solutions to the tight market, Canyon Creek and Hellgate Meadows remain two of the only current options for cheaper housing. And even those options aren’t a sure thing, as Canyon Creek is selling out its stock before the homes are even finished.

From their front porches, Hert and her neighbor Heather Glenn share the same view: acres of dirt, half-built houses and heavy construction equipment. Glenn admits that from her stoop, Canyon Creek doesn’t feel much like a neighborhood. But she understands the construction’s purpose.

“I bought my house even before it was built,” she says. “I looked around and this was a great price. It’s what I could afford.”

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