More than 200 new affordable housing units are coming to Missoula and will be available to those who make far less than the median income, thanks to a recently formed plan and partnership between the city, county and multiple nonprofits.
Essentially, the county is committing to donating a 4-acre parcel near the Missoula County Detention Facility to a coalition of nonprofit entities for construction of a 130-unit housing complex. Of those, 30 units will be reserved as permanent supportive housing for people experiencing chronic homelessness. A 24-hour navigation center will be built to support people with high barriers to housing, including those re-entering the community from the criminal justice system.
Also, another 72 apartments will be built at the former Skyview mobile home park on the Westside neighborhood. The residents of that trailer park were evicted last year and the property is currently vacant and under contract to be bought by the nonprofit Homeword.
Together, the two sites will comprise one of the largest affordable housing projects in Montana history, along with a planned 200-unit complex called The Villagio that’s being developed on the Northside by the Missoula Housing Authority. The 400 new units will make a significant impact in Missoula, where the median income has not kept pace with skyrocketing housing prices.
The 202 total units will be in a variety of floor plans, but all will be available to people making at or below 60% of Missoula’s Area Median Income. That means they will be affordable to an individual making $30,840 or below, for example; or a family of four making $43,980.
The Missoula Housing Authority, Homeword and Blueline Development propose to construct the homes. There will be no direct financial contributions from either the county or the city, so there will be no taxpayer dollars spent on the project.
The county hasn't formalized the land donation yet, but the three commissioners intend to sign a letter on Wednesday morning at their 10 a.m. public meeting to demonstrate their intent. An agreement to formalize the donation will be held on a Thursday afternoon in the near future, with advance notice, so that the public can comment on the plan.
If the county land had been privately developed it would increase the county’s tax base, but all three county commissioners agreed that ending chronic homelessness and combating the community’s affordable housing shortage are top priorities.
“This will move people from the street, our hospitals and the criminal justice system into homes,” said county commissioner Cola Rowley at a press conference. “While providing the support necessary for their ongoing success, stability and positive contributions to our community.”
The nonprofits working on the project will utilize Low Income Housing Tax Credits to finance the project, and the Housing Authority is donating 30 low-income housing vouchers.
“This is a big deal Missoula, this is a real big deal,” said county commissioner Dave Strohmaier.
He added that previous commissioners made a wise decision to hold onto the property in the hopes that it could be eventually used for the community’s benefit.
“And I’m very excited that (the land) is going to be used for something other than an expanded jail,” he said. All three county commissioners said the new plan will help meet the goals of the Jail Diversion Master Plan, which aims to reduce taxpayer-funded incarceration, and it has the support of the Missoula County Attorney’s Office and the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office.
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“I can’t tell you how excited we are,” said Lori Davidson, the executive director of the Missoula Housing Authority. “If any one of the pieces here wasn’t here, it wouldn’t be happening. Land is one of the tallest barriers we face in housing development.”
Mayor John Engen also said he strongly supported the plan, saying it will be a critical part of Missoula's Reaching Home: A 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, which began in 2011. When a reporter asked if people will flock to Missoula to take advantage of cheap housing options, Engen pushed back.
“I think that there’s a misperception that it’s fun to be homeless, right, and that this is an opportunity to take advantage of the system,” he said. Engen said he remembers someone once suggested that the Poverello Center homeless shelter encourages people to not work because they have a free place to sleep and free meals.
“And I can tell you service providers, or anyone in this room who’s spent any time in any of these facilities where people are accessing services, find them to be challenging at best and if you had another option, as many of us do, then you might find something else,” he said. He also noted that the Missoula Office of Housing and Community Development, has researched and analyzed the homeless population here and found that the majority were born and raised in the area.
Homeword, a nonprofit that has built several affordable housing projects in town, is under contract to purchase the former Skyview trailer park land. The 72-unit complex built on that site will include one-, two-, three- and some four-bedroom units.
Andrea Davis, the executive director of Homeword, agreed that the cost of land is often a significant encumbrance on building affordable housing. Her organization has developed many energy-efficient low-income housing projects in Missoula, and she said there’s a special type of 4% tax credit that only makes sense on large projects.
“We’re always keeping our eye out for more opportunities,” she said.
Nate Richmond, the president and CEO of Blueline Development in Missoula, said the next step is to put together the tax credit application and secure financing.
“I think in the best case scenario, to abbreviate the timeline, I think we would be able to start construction by next summer, and that’s probably if all the stars align,” he said. “And then it would probably be about an 18-month build-out.”
The development would also provide comprehensive on-site programming through the construction of a navigation center. According to a press release from Missoula County, navigation centers are low-threshold, high-service programs for people experiencing chronic homelessness or returning from incarceration. The staff members at the center would support local law enforcement, local hospitals and emergency responders answering calls for service related to homelessness and addiction.
Several nonprofits and providers in Missoula have committed to bringing their expertise and resources to the project, including Open Aid Alliance, the Poverello Center and Partnership Health Center. The navigation center would provide behavioral health support, health care for the homeless, housing case management and other aid.
Eran Pehan, the director of the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development, said the city has other parcels of land that could provide a “five- to seven-year pipeline of projects at this scale to provide affordable deed-restricted housing to individuals with targeted incomes.”