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Affordable housing in a good location in Missoula is getting increasingly hard to find, but a new project in a formerly polluted industrial site aims to quickly improve the situation.

Homeword, a local nonprofit, is in the final phase of construction on a three-story, 27-unit apartment building in the Old Sawmill District that a two-person household earning about $14.20 an hour ($29,580 a year) or less can afford.

With housing prices in Missoula rising faster than most metro areas in the United States, the studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments near Silver Park on the corner of California and Montana streets will surely provide relief to all sorts of people struggling to pay for a nice place to live.

Ready for move-in within a month, they'll be available to single parents, elderly residents on a fixed income, disabled people, formerly homeless individuals, large families and working-class Missoulians of all kinds.

Andrea Davis, the executive director of Homeword, said that the organization’s goal is to empower people with safe, healthy housing that will benefit families long into the future.

“We have known for our existence that Missoula has a tight housing market,” Davis said, adding that “2016 in particular saw some of the greatest housing price increases that we’ve ever seen, and the rental market just continues to be more and more expensive for folks that are earning living wages and those that are earning low to moderate incomes in Missoula. So we’re super-excited to develop here.”

Sweetgrass Commons features underground parking and covered bike storage. The location near bike/pedestrian paths mean residents will have easy access to work, school and recreation/entertainment options like the Ogren-Allegiance baseball stadium, McCormick Park, Currents Aquatic Center and the Montana Natural History Center.

All units feature open floor plans, modern kitchens, high ceilings and energy- efficient appliances and heating systems. Residents will pay their own electricity, but a solar panel outside will provide 22 kilowatts for the building. Every unit has a private balcony, and many feature views of the North Hills and Lolo Peak. There will be a community library/lounge with Wi-Fi, and a covered outdoor patio space will be a gathering spot with a barbecue. An elevator connects all three floors with the parking garage.

Four units will be available to people earning less than $17,280 per year (40 percent of the area median income of $43,200). Another 17 units will be available to people earning between $17,280 and $21,600 per year, and six units will be for those earning less than or equal to 60 percent of area median income, or $25,920 annually.

That means that studio rents will be between $348-564 per month, a one- bedroom will be between $352-$583, a two-bedroom will be between $547-$686, and a three-bedroom apartment will be between $619-779 per month, plus utilities. Applicants must be income-qualified to move in, but if they earn a higher wage afterwards they can still live there. That means families are encouraged to do better financially and not be penalized by losing their housing. The building is deed-restricted to be affordable housing for at least 46 years.

The construction cost of the 36,931-square-foot building was around $4.2 million. The property is a public/private partnership that was financed primarily through federal housing tax credits administered through the Montana Board of Housing. Homeword also used private investor equity and some local support through Tax Increment Financing from the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, which actually sold the land to Homeword for half-price.

Nearby, developers at the Old Sawmill District are in the midst of a $250 million redevelopment, but Sweetgrass Commons will be the only affordable housing in the district. The area was a polluted, crime-ridden eyesore for many years before federal, state and local agencies, along with private developers and the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, began rehabbing the entire area.

“For nearly 20 years Homeword, along with other community housing advocates, has been encouraging the redevelopment of the former Champion mill site by repurposing it into a thriving urban neighborhood,” Davis said. “We are thrilled to be a part of this significant redevelopment at the newly envisioned Old Sawmill District. Good, strong urban infill in the core of our Montana communities is one of the most important sustainable development strategies Homeword embraces."

Sweetgrass Commons only takes up about half an acre, but it was designed to maximize the lot size. The last affordable housing property Homeword developed was the Solstice building at the corner of Broadway and Russell in 2012, and that building is fully occupied. Homeword has built or renovated 528 affordable housing units across the state since 1994, and the addition of Sweetgrass Commons and projects in Bozeman and Bigfork will increase that to 723 units. In addition to housing, Homeword also provides housing and financial counseling and education in Missoula.

These services include homebuyer, financial, renter and foreclosure prevention education and counseling. Financial Fitness and Rent Wise classes are offered free. Free one-on-one coaching sessions in all service areas are also available to the public.

Davis said they decided to offer rentals instead of permanent ownership because a 2014 market study for the project indicated that rental housing was in high demand.

“That need has only increased as the demand has skyrocketed over this past year. We are pleased to be able to offer safe, healthy housing to help meet that demand,” she said.

Leasing information for Sweetgrass Commons can be obtained from Tamarack Property Management. Call 406.927.2635 or visit sweetgrasscommons.tamarackpm.com/ for more detailed leasing information.

This story has been updated to reflect the fact that the income limit of $14.20 per hour is for a two-person household.

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