Affordable low-income housing

It took time to craft an effective, comprehensive housing policy aimed at alleviating Missoula’s affordable housing crunch. And now that this policy has been approved by the Missoula City Council, it will take still more time to implement its recommendations.

As frustrating as the pace may be to Missoulians who are barely scraping together enough to pay their monthly rent or mortgage, that’s how good government works. It makes changes carefully, which usually means slowly.

But good government should also be nimble enough to take advantage of new opportunities when they arise, which is exactly what Missoula’s three county commissioners are doing by moving ahead with a proposal to donate a portion of county land for an affordable housing project.

The proposal caught some county residents off guard when it was announced in May, as it hadn’t been a prominent point of public discussion until then. However, it’s important to remember that county staff were included in the housing policy technical work groups formed more than a year ago and that the commissioners have been well aware of the pressing need for more affordable housing solutions for even longer.

Additionally, Missoula County commissioners have clear guidance provided via two other recently approved plans that call for additional supportive housing for those who face high barriers to housing. “Reaching Home: Missoula’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness” and the Jail Diversion Master Plan bring together city and county resources, in partnership with local nonprofits and social service groups, to develop permanent housing solutions for low-income households and individuals leaving the Missoula County jail. Indeed, the land is located next to the Missoula County Detention Center on Mullan Road.

So the idea of dedicating 4 acres of this 21-acre property dovetails neatly with the vision provided to commissioners after extensive public input, and the May announcement served as a starting point for further community discussion and public comment. Over the past few months, commissioners have held meetings and hearings on this one issue, all of which have been open to the public.

It’s been more than 20 years since county voters wisely approved $17 million in bonds to purchase this property and build the detention center, which replaced badly overcrowded quarters in the courthouse annex and allowed the county to expand its criminal justice services to include important supports such as a health clinic, library and counseling offices. The jail can accommodate nearly 400 inmates at a time, but in recent years, it has experienced overcrowding that forced authorities to send some inmates to facilities in other nearby counties.

Rather than spending more taxpayer money on continually building bigger jails, the Jail Diversion Master Plan put together by Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott with a lengthy list of local and state experts seeks to help more inmates successfully remain in or re-enter the community. In this way, the addition of targeted housing on this property directly benefits the detention center.

More broadly, it clearly benefits the entire community — and remarkably, at no additional cost to Missoula taxpayers. Even the bond passed in 1996 has been paid off already.

To pay for the project, a coalition of groups — Missoula Housing Authority, Homeword and Blueline Development — plans to take advantage of low income housing tax credits. In addition to the 130 housing units plans for this project, the same coalition expects to build another 72 apartments on the site of the former Skyview Mobile Home Park. Both projects will open rentals to those who make less than 60% of the median income for the Missoula area ($30,840 for a single individual; $43,980 for a family of four), except for 30 units dedicated as permanent housing for the chronically homeless.

The groups behind these projects have extensive experience in serving this population, and have done extensive research into best practices as well. Not only are they building homes, they also plan to create a 24-hour navigation center to handle case management, health care and mental health services, along with any community conflicts that may arise.

This is smart planning. It’s the type of opportunity that is made possible by years of dedicated discussion on a number of pervasive problems, and seldom do such opportunities come at virtually no cost to taxpayers.

Compare this proposal to Missoula’s other major housing project in the works. The Missoula Housing Agency is moving forward on a plan to build 200 units for those earning 60% or less than the area median income. The $36.5 million project, called Villagio, will offer two-, three- and four-bedroom units in an apartment complex constructed on the Northside, and the cost will be covered by a combination of "housing tax credits, a tax-exempt bond, City of Missoula HOME funds, City of Missoula Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds and a State HOME grant," according to MHA.

These two projects, as sizable as they are, are not going to fix Missoula’s housing affordability issues all by themselves. There will still be homeless individuals and families in Missoula. But they are a significant step in the right direction.

Commission Chair Dave Strohmeier, Commissioner Josh Slotnick and new commissioner Juanita Vero, who was just sworn in July 1, appear poised to move ahead of the land donation. Their latest hearing on the matter was held Sept. 5, and they are expected to give their final vote of approval on Sept. 17 during their regular administrative meeting.

They should do so with confidence, and with all of Missoula County’s commendation for moving relatively quickly to find a small but significant way to help tackle some urgent community problems.

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