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County, city move forward on 330 affordable housing units; rents still high in MT

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Villagio new rendering

An architectural rendering of the Villagio Apartments.

Missoula County officials and the Missoula City Council took baby steps in advancing two huge new affordable housing projects that will comprise a combined 330 units.

Meanwhile, a new report shows Montana is more affordable than 34 other states, by one metric.

On Wednesday, the Missoula City Council moved forward on the largest affordable housing project in state history, the Villagio. It’s slated to be built near the north end of Scott Street in the Northside neighborhood.

The council approved a contract with the Villagio LLLP for the expenditure of $1,095,000 in HOME Investment Partnership funds for the construction of the project. The council also set a public hearing for Aug. 3 to solicit comment on whether the Villagio meets a community housing need.

The $55 million project will be 200 apartment units, a mix of two-, three- and four-bedrooms that will be priced to be affordable to working-class Missoulians. There will also be 32 project-based affordable housing vouchers available through the Missoula Housing Authority available for the lowest-income renters.

“We’re partnering with community organizations like Missoula Housing Authority and Blue Line Development to create true deed-restricted permanently affordable housing in our community,” explained Eran Pehan, the director of Missoula’s Office of Housing and Community Development.

Heidi West, a Missoula City Council member who represents the Northside and Westside neighborhoods, said she’s aware that 200 units will have a big impact on the neighborhood.

“I know 200 is a lot,” she said. “I live right down the street. As expected, there are concerns around traffic especially on Scott Street that will result from density. That being said, everyone is super-aware in city administration as well as staff that these are issues that come along with density.”

She said the city is working on solutions, especially because other growth is planned in the area. West also alluded to the fact that the Northside and Westside neighborhoods are zoned for higher-density housing, unlike many other neighborhoods in Missoula zoned for single-family homes only.

“This is a really great location for this project,” she said. “It’s so hard to find land that isn’t already occupied. It’s close to downtown, close to services and the hospital. We know location is key in affordable housing. There are costs associated with where you live, like transportation."

One of the recommendations in the city's affordable housing plan is to change zoning laws to allow higher density in more neighborhoods rather than letting just a few neighborhoods absorb the majority of infill. But West said she's glad the Villagio is going in where it is because the residents will be close to services, amenities and jobs.

"So I'm happy to see this happening in our neighborhood," she said. "I will push for equity in what neighborhoods absorb these projects because the Northside and Westside absorb most of it, but I'm happy that it’s happening here.”

On Tuesday, the Missoula County Board of Commissioners voted to authorize Chair Josh Slotnick to sign a minor subdivision application with the City of Missoula for the Trinity affordable housing project, which will be built on city-owned land near the Missoula County Detention Facility. The project included 130 housing units, including a four-story workforce housing building, a four-story permanent supportive housing building and a Navigation Center to help people dealing with housing issues. It would also include open space, a controlled access gate and a parking lot. The City of Missoula will have to subdivide the property in the future.

“By early next year the property needs to have been subdivided to figure in to the time frame,” county Commissioner Dave Strohmaier told the Missoulian. “We decided a minor subdivision process was the cleanest and most transparent way to do the project. We have the support of the Sheriff’s Office. We’re creating a lot line such that the acreage can be severed off so the county can retain ownership of the property for future expansion of the Detention Center."

Meanwhile, a new report shows Montana is the 35th most expensive state to live in for someone wanting to afford a two-bedroom rental home priced at Fair Market Rent without paying more than 30% of their income and working full-time, but no more.

In Montana, a full-time worker would need to earn $16.88 an hour to afford that two-bedroom home. And to afford a one-bedroom home, a minimum-wage worker would need to work 61 to 80 hours a week in Missoula County. Those numbers come from the annual Out of Reach affordable housing report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

In Montana, the Fair Market Rent (determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) for a two-bedroom apartment is $878. In order to afford that level of rent and utilities without being cost-burdened, a household must earn $35,112 annually. That means one person must work at twice the minimum wage or two people must work full-time at the minimum wage. The average renter wage in Montana is $13.15. The most expensive counties in Montana are Gallatin County and Lewis and Clark County.

In the Missoula metro area, the wage needed to afford that two-bed rental home is $17.65.

According to the report, Hawaii, California, Massachusetts and New York are the most expensive states.

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