A Missoula-based developer is proposing a 39-unit affordable housing apartment complex for those ages 55 and older, but some City Council members oppose its location, saying Franklin to the Fort residents are concerned about an influx of new people and cars.
As Missoula's affordable housing shortage worsens, and developers say it's nearly impossible to find buildable land, it's the type of conflict the community will have to grapple with more and more.
Alex Burkhalter of Housing Solutions told the Missoula City Council earlier this month that he wants to build the complex at 2400 Ninth St. W., just two blocks east of Reserve Street. It’s currently a vacant plot of land.
The apartments would rent for between $525 and $715 for a one-bedroom unit, and between $630 and $815 for a two-bedroom, utilities included, depending on income levels. The apartments would only be available to households making under $33,840 for two people or $29,580 for one person. The median-priced home in Missoula is around $290,000, and a family would need an income of over $96,000 to afford to purchase one at that price, according to the Missoula Organization of Realtors.
“Housing Solutions is currently pursuing Housing Tax Credits from the Montana Board of Housing to make this affordable rental project for lower-income seniors a reality,” Burkhalter said.
Burkhalter applied for the same tax credits last year and was denied for a project called Skyview on Missoula’s Westside neighborhood at the site of a former trailer park. He’s still calling this project Skyview and hopes the board will grant him the credits later this year.
City Council member Michelle Cares, who represents the Franklin to the Fort neighborhood, attended a neighborhood meeting earlier this year and said about 20 people were opposed to the project.
“I don’t disagree there is a need (for affordable housing) but I disagree where it should go,” she said. “Just because there is a piece of land that could work doesn’t mean we should pursue it.”
Cares said neighbors are concerned that the project will add traffic and people to a neighborhood without enough infrastructure.
“The primary thing is the idea of incremental density gains, which is something I’ve been thinking more about,” she said. “And that is just absolutely not being taken into consideration. This is a huge change. It’s not incremental. There’s a ton of single-family residences and we’re considering a 39-unit complex here.”
The developer will have to build sidewalks on the property but they won’t connect to any other sidewalks for a long time, she said. Cares said residents said there aren’t bus lines nearby, but Burkhalter said there’s a Mountain Line stop two blocks away.
Burkhalter said Missoula is facing a severe shortage of affordable housing, and part of the reason is developers can’t find suitable land for building.
“Finding land to build affordable housing because of land costs is nearly impossible,” he said. “I felt like this was a unicorn site because it’s there, it’s vacant and the price allows us to do the project. And it’s in an area identified in the city’s growth policy for higher-density housing. And we’re pursuing this project in alignment with the recently adopted housing policy.”
Burkhalter said he looked everywhere from Bonner to Butler Creek to Lolo and “all points in between” to find a lot to build.
“To say it’s difficult to find land would be an understatement,” he said. “It’s near impossible.”
Cares said she understands it’s hard for developers to find land and she also realizes the city lacks enough affordable housing.
“I don’t have the perfect answer,” she said. “Yes, I agree that Franklin to the Fort is identified to have higher density. We are seeing a big density increase all over the place. That’s not wrong, but there are people who have lived there their whole lives and we have to balance conditions on the ground with our growth policy.”
Council member John DiBari also said he’s concerned about the location.
“It’s definitely the right idea, there’s definitely a need, but it’s maybe not the right spot,” he said. “A project like this would require whole new zoning and maybe the removal of subdivision lines we just created.”
Cares said people in her ward often don’t rise up against projects like people in other neighborhoods do, so she wants to support them.
“They weren’t all NIMBY either,” she said, referring to the acronym for the Not In My Back Yard movement, which refers to people who support policies as long as those policies don’t directly affect them.
“Some of the folks at this 20-person meeting were a little bit (NIMBY), but most just said it’s not the right spot,” Cares said.
Other City Council members, like Gwen Jones, expressed support for the project, saying there is a “big community need” for affordable housing for seniors.
The Missoula City Council will discuss the project on July 15, but if Burkhalter is successful in getting tax credits later this fall, the City Council would revisit the issue.