The Missoula community rallied to raise nearly $10,000 in less than two weeks to save affordable housing by paying 31 delinquent tax bills for residents of mobile trailer homes.
Svein Newman started an online GoFundMe fundraiser called “Save Affordable Missoula Housing” after reading a Missoulian story about the county’s plans to auction off nearly 200 trailer homes due to unpaid tax bills. The county is required by law to make every effort to collect unpaid tax bills, but Newman said he wanted to try to help these low-income, vulnerable families keep their homes.
“To me, affordable housing begins with helping folks stay in homes they already have,” Newman said. “I started the fundraiser because of the article in the Missoulian about a week back. I read that a bunch of Missoulians were at risk of losing their homes that many of them own. A lot of these debts were as low as $200, so it seems unconscionable to me that somebody’s going to lose the home they own for as low as $200.”
Newman said a single mother reached out to him via Facebook when she heard about the fundraiser.
“She said, ‘Hi, I’ve got a property tax bill of less than $200, I have two kids and I’m working on trying to get the money together but it doesn’t look like we’re going to be able to make it, can you help?’ and it felt wonderful to be able to say yes and take care of that,” Newman said.
A total of 136 people donated to the fundraiser, with ZooTown Church contributing $1,900 and several elected officials pitching in.
“It’s really wonderful the way it took off,” Newman said. “I remember reading in the Missoulian about an anonymous donor a few years ago who came in and cut a check for something like $9,000 one year to pay these bills. I’m 30 and work for a nonprofit and can’t do that, but I do have $50 or $100.
"I thought maybe a handful of other folks in the same position could do the same, but to see how many people came together was really wonderful. It’s a tangible but small-dollar way to help a larger community goal.”
On Wednesday morning, the county auctioned off several dozen trailer homes that were still delinquent on taxes. A crowd showed up to buy, and the bidding started as low as $191 on some of the properties.
Derek VanVallis and Kelsey Quinn were at the auction with their newborn baby. They bid on a trailer for about $200, even though they had never seen it when they bought it. Basically, the young couple just needed a cheap place to live.
“I live in Manhattan, Kansas, right now and I’m thinking about moving back so I think it’s a good way to get my foot in the door,” VanVallis said. “I can fix it up.”
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“He’s a handyman,” Quinn said. “It was a ‘whatever we could get our hands on’ sort of deal. You kind of just take a chance. It was a cheap trailer, so either way.”
Housing prices have risen nearly 30 percent since 2010 in Missoula due mainly to a lack of inventory, while wages have not risen nearly as much.
Hermina Harold of the North Missoula Community Development Corp., a nonprofit that works to preserve and build affordable housing, started a separate fundraiser a few months ago to help the tenants of the Skyview Trailer Court in Missoula’s Westside neighborhood.
Those residents were told last fall that they would be evicted on April 30 in order to make way for a new development of senior housing. Harold’s Skyview Eviction Assistance Fund on GoFundMe raised nearly $3,000.
The money will be used to help the residents of the trailer park move to new homes and all the other costs associated with the eviction. Because many of the trailers are too old to move, and the residents can’t afford Missoula’s housing costs, the options are limited.
“There are still quite a few people that are really facing homelessness,” she said. “We were able to pay off one or two Skyview tax bills yesterday. But I’m calling around five families today to try to work out some creative solutions because all the other options for them have just now worked out.”
At least one person had to give their trailer away because she couldn’t move it.
“She’s worked the same job for 13 years and put a lot of money in the trailer,” Harold said. “Even though it’s in pretty good shape, it’s too old to move. One person has been looking for a place to park his camper, with no luck. Another person was going to try to get to the auction today to buy somebody else’s trailer they had to lose, so it’s a messed-up situation. I’m not sure he even made it to the auction because he needed a loan.”
Another family of five is visiting the YWCA in Missoula this week to get vouchers for emergency housing.
“It’s just not looking good for a lot of people even with the resources we have,” Harold said. “It’s heartbreaking. The community needs to come up with a preventative solution to these situations if they’re going to keep happening. We’re losing some of our most affordable housing. Every time a trailer park is redeveloped, that is gone forever.”