Uneasy living 

City occupancy standards could place nonprofits at risk

The hotly debated, but lately forgotten proposed occupancy standards are poised to come to a head on Sept. 16 when the Missoula City Council is expected to decide whether or not to adopt the standards. The citizen-drafted ordinance has been revised since it was first introduced in March, but opponents have the same complaints with it as they had months ago.

“My basic problem with it is that it will not fix any of the problems it attempts to address,” says Ward Three Councilman John Torma. “It will increase the cost of housing, it will increase the number of miles traveled in the urban core, it will make the parking problem worse.”

The stated goal of the occupancy standards is to limit the number of non-related people who can live together, thereby minimizing the impact of rental units (particularly students) on the owner-occupied population. Neighborhoods around the University of Montana would be the most restrictive, with no more than three unrelated roommates allowed in a single dwelling.

For students, the potential repercussions of passing the standards have been widely reported: higher rents, longer commutes, and perhaps a decline in the number of parties within walking distance of campus. But for other populations, other consequences are only now coming to light. Families living below the poverty line, homeless individuals and battered women may find an already tight housing market even more difficult if the ordinance is adopted. Some language in the latest draft may extinguish these populations’ best options for survival—possibly making facilities like the YWCA women’s shelter, the Poverello Center’s homeless shelter and the Joseph Residence Center for low-income families illegal.

“We’re extremely concerned about the ordinance,” says the Poverello Center’s Development Director Jori Frankie, whose organization shelters about 100 people each night. “We’re disappointed that it seems to have so much support by the council and concerned that Missoulians haven’t considered the dire consequences of this.”

While some members of the council, like Ward One Councilwoman Lois Herbig, say they want to give the ordinance a try, they also want to be sure it exempts the nonprofits. But as written, it is difficult to tell who will and who will not be exempted from the standards.

“If this ordinance gets passed as is and then a group home was to be in violation of it and be charged, they certainly could come back and say they don’t even fit the initial definition,” says Deputy City Attorney Susan Firth. “And I don’t think we could argue that they don’t or they do.”

City Attorney Jim Nugent’s interpretation of the language in the new draft has him worried that non-profits that provide transitional and emergency housing might be forced outside of the city limits. In a memo critiquing the new draft, Nugent writes:

“What is meant by a ‘nonprofit housekeeping unit?’ Alternately, what is a for-profit housekeeping unit? How is this supposed to be interpreted and applied when administering the ordinance?”

If the ordinance were adopted and applied to these non-profits, it make it more difficult for people to find low-income housing, volunteers who live in group situations and work for the non-profits might be forced to move, and the shelters and group homes that couldn’t afford to relocate might close.

“For those of us who work with the homeless in Missoula, we try and change the stigma attached to homeless,” says Frankie. “Moving us out of the city center isn’t going to help and it will lessen diversity, which is one of the best things about Missoula.”

Several nonprofits have already indicated that they will file suit if the ordinance is enacted. But even if the courts find it unconstitutional, a drawn-out court battle would be a significant expense not only for cash-strapped non-profits but for the city as well.

“Not only could we get sued over this but we could be fined by the Human Rights Commission if they think we are violating constitutional rights,” says city attorney Firth.

The ordinance could also jeopardize future fundraising for non-profits. If donors think their money will be wasted in a court battle, or if they believe the organizations they support won’t stay open, they may be less likely to give, says Frankie.

Ordinance drafter and Missoula attorney Rick Baskett says he isn’t familiar enough with the situation of each of the non-profits to say whether or not they would be effected. He is also aware that opponents claim the latest draft is unconstitutional.

“That issue has been raised,” Baskett says. “But I think that we’ve drafted this in away to withstand constitutional challenge.”

Torma disagrees and thinks numerous groups, including non-profits and human rights advocates, will sue the city to contest its legality.

“The city has got to defend itself, but it’s going to be interesting how we’re going to do that,” Torma says. “Nugent has said that he doesn’t think it’s legal, so how does he defend a challenge against the city that he doesn’t think is legal? Even it is weren’t unconstitutional, to really enforce it would be an amazingly resource-intensive process.”

Torma, like others, acknowledges that there are problems the ordinance is trying to resolve, and sympathizes with people who support it, but thinks there are better ways to address those problems.

“The parking problems, the dead grass, the loud parties, this isn’t going to fix any of that,” he says. “All it will do is make a further antagonistic relationship between the student’s who live off campus and their neighbors.”

To combat such hostility, a group of citizens in the university district has decided to do something proactive. On Sept. 15, the eve of the occupancy standards vote, the group is sponsoring an ice cream social for both student and non-student residents of the area. The object is to catalyze conversation between the two groups, relieve tension and foster neighborly relationships.

Currently, the council appears evenly divided over the ordinance, making predictions of its outcome difficult.

“One thing I’ve learned is that speculation with the City Council doesn’t get you very far,” says Ward One Councilman John Engen. “It could go either way.”

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