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Missoulian editorial

Missoulian editorial: Mental health center must transfer housing to public

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It is painfully obvious that Missoula’s affordable housing crisis is not getting any better. But as hard as it might be for the majority of people desperately searching for a home in Missoula, it’s even more difficult for those who have serious mental health challenges.

That’s why even those who have ceased to be surprised by the latest two-bedroom-one-bath home to sell for half a million dollars were shocked and dismayed to learn of one local not-for-profit’s plans to put its affordable housing units up for sale.

Missoulian reporter David Erickson broke the news May 19 that the Western Montana Mental Health Center had listed two buildings that house residents with unique mental health and disability needs. Rents are subsidized by Medicaid. If these residents lose their homes, there is no comparable place for them to go.

Missoula Mayor John Engen’s office responded with a statement outlining his intention, along with Missoula County commissioners, to work “to ensure that the Bridge Apartments remain in nonprofit hands and that tenants will continue to live there.” The county is now actively exploring how to either purchase the units or convince WMMHC to retain them.

Missoulians must throw their support behind this work and urge the mental health center’s administrators to do everything in their power to keep the units available to their current occupants. In the meantime, the buildings should be pulled off the market.

It’s understandable that WMMHC is no longer able to fit these buildings into its core mission of providing mental health and addiction treatment services, especially in light of the debilitating budget cuts it has weathered in recent months. However, the fact of the matter is that this housing provides an essential service for the same population as that served by the center.

WMMHC is a (501)(c)(3) not-for-profit, tax-exempt, public purpose corporation. Its mission is to “build thriving communities through compassionate, whole-person, expert care.” Stable housing is a foundational aspect of a thriving community.

That does not mean the responsibility should fall solely on an organization that is already facing overwhelming demand, especially as mental health conditions and substance abuse have grown dramatically more acute during the pandemic. It is the rightful role of government to step in and solve critical problems that cannot be solved in the private sector.

The two buildings in question were originally built thanks in large part to state and federal grants, which come with restrictions on their use. The 20-unit Bridge Apartments were completed in 1998 using 14 different grants and a $20,000 chunk of tax increment financing from the city. The four-plex was made possible through a low-interest loan from the Montana Board of Housing. Both buildings received Community Development Block Grants. The public funding allowed costs to individual renters to remain low, and the grants came with income restrictions that had to be met for a certain length of time.

Now, the buildings are debt-free and the restriction period has lapsed. The Bridge Apartments in downtown Missoula have been listed at $2.19 million. The four-plex on the other side of the Clark Fork River, on Third Street, was listed at $525,000.

The clock is ticking. The supply of housing in Missoula is tight and properties are being snapped up in a matter of weeks, and prices continue to climb. According to the 2021 housing report released by the Missoula Organization of Realtors last week, the median sales price of a Missoula home shot up from $350,000 in 2020 to $420,000 in the first quarter of 2021. Even though the supply of homes listed for sale declined more than 9%, the number of homes sold was the highest it’s been in two decades.

Average rents increased 6.7% while vacancy rates hovered between 1 and 3.1%, which is in keeping with the trend in recent years.

Against this backdrop, Missoula residents have been clamoring for help as low- and middle-income people have been priced out of the market and forced out of their rentals. The Missoula County 2021 Community Needs Assessment compiled 887 survey responses, about 65% of which came from Missoula city residents, and gathered additional input during a virtual public meeting held the evening of May 25. The top priority identified by 68% of responses was: “Increase the supply of housing that is affordable to all income levels.”

Diving further into the housing question, the survey lists the lack of affordable housing to buy, and the lack of affordable housing to rent, as the two most significant housing challenges facing Missoula County. When it comes to housing initiatives, more than 55% of respondents said maintaining or expanding the supply of affordable housing were the top priorities. An additional 44% would like to see subsidies to build affordable housing for low- and moderate-income households.

The housing concerns dovetail with mental health demand in the survey on the issue of identifying priorities for people experiencing homelessness. A majority of respondents (52%) named “mental health and substance use treatment services” as a priority for addressing homelessness, and nearly 22% identified a need to “assist nonprofits that provide human services” as an additional priority.

The WMMHC housing units fall at the intersection of these concerns. Its board of directors should take pains to turn these properties over to the city or county, which can maintain the not-for-profit model and charge tenants only what is necessary to maintain the buildings. Missoulians ought to recognize this for the financial sacrifice it is, and step up to ensure the center can fill its financial gaps and continue to meet the mental health needs of the community.

This support can come in the form of donations or volunteerism; it should absolutely include urging our representatives at all levels of government to dedicate more public funding for mental health services.

This editorial represents the views of the Missoulian editorial board: Publisher Jim Strauss, Executive Editor Jim Van Nostrand and Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen. 

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