A valuable and desirable piece of property in the heart of downtown was recently donated to the North Missoula Community Development Corp., which hopes to build seven new community land trust townhouses on the site.
If all goes according to plan, they will eventually be available to qualifying low-income homebuyers.
“This project would provide permanent, affordable homeownership downtown, which is going to be a rare commodity downtown,” said NMCDC Executive Director Bob Oaks. “We are looking at some serious gentrification happening downtown and nothing in the way of permanent affordability. This will be a toe in the door in terms of developing affordable housing. In Missoula, a couple making the median wage is still $100,000 short of being able to afford a median-priced home.”
The property at 503 E. Front St. consists of two old houses that were “married” together over the years.
“At one time, there were 10 apartments and half of them were not code-compliant,” Oaks said. “The city shut the place down a year ago for code violations. It was donated to us by somebody who inherited it, but was a supporter of the community land trust housing that we do here. This type of land is extremely hard to come by for a nonprofit and only getting more expensive, so this project wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of the donor.”
According to Heidi West, a community organizer for the NMCDC and a member of the Missoula City Council, the house contains logs that could date from 1864, when Worden and Co. established a lumber mill along the river.
The property’s first owner, Cyrus McWhirk, operated an impressive orchard and gardens near the river that caused a newspaper reporter to dub Missoula the “Garden City” – a name that stuck.
“This will be a demolition and construction of new townhomes,” Oaks said. “There is quite a bit of asbestos in there, so we have to remove that before demolition. But it’s a very cool neighborhood, so close to Kiwanis Park. We think this project will be very compatible with the neighborhood.”
The NMCDC will contact Home ReSource and other companies to reuse and recycle the lumber and other valuables in the house.
Although the plan is “far from a done deal,” Oaks said the new development would resemble the NMCDC’s Clark Fork Commons townhouses near Russell Street. There would be ground-floor garages, second-story kitchens and living rooms and third-story bedrooms. Each unit would have porches and balconies.
The way a community land trust works is the nonprofit – the NMCDC in this case – owns the land and the buildings are put up for sale. The homebuyers then lease the land from the NMCDC for a small amount of money.
“When they resell, they take limited equity,” Oaks said. “They get whatever they’ve paid and an appreciation that is not based on windfall. They get no unearned equity. Basically, what they are doing is passing on a subsidy that they get to begin with to get into the home to the next generation of buyers and all subsequent buyers. It offers permanent affordability.”
To qualify to purchase the townhouses, buyers must earn 80 percent or less of the area median income. For one person in Missoula, that means an annual income of $36,300 or less, or $41,500 for two people, $46,700 for three people and $51,850 for four.
To finance the project, the NMCDC will apply for federal Community Development Block Grants to help with the infrastructure, and will be looking to the Missoula Redevelopment Agency for help as well since the property is within the Front Street Urban Renewal District.
On Wednesday, Feb. 17, the NMCDC will hold a public hearing about the project at 7 p.m. at the Burns Street Community Center, 1500 Burns St. The purpose is to learn what community members – especially low-income and very low-income residents – think about the plans.
The NMCDC has three other developments in town consisting of 47 units. This would be its fourth project.
Jerry Petasek, the land stewardship program coordinator at the NMCDC, said public hearings are required because they will be applying for grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“As a community development corporation, everything we do comes from the neighborhoods we work in, the Northside, the Westside and downtown,” he said. “We need that input. We know we need more affordable housing in these neighborhoods. This is a chance for the public to say ‘It looks like it will be too tall or too green’ – that type of thing. The architect and staff and contractor will come there with great ideas.”
Petasek said the NMCDC looked at all sorts of different scenarios, including selling the land and using the proceeds to develop housing somewhere a little cheaper. However, Petasek said land prices are high almost everywhere, and the East Front location would ultimately cut down on commuting costs for people who live there.
“It’s a desirable location for affordable housing,” he said. “It could quite literally be the only affordable homeownership opportunities that will be there. We would love to see more affordable housing in Missoula, particularly at the old White Pine Sash site (on the Northside). Ultimately, we wanted to take a shot at this.”
For more information, visit nmcdc.org.