Units will be sold by Missoula Housing Authority

Most of the public housing tenants whose houses are slated for sale by the Missoula Housing Authority have found new places to live, and the remaining 18 households are on their way, spurred by 90-day eviction notices they received Wednesday.

The plan to sell 45 larger public housing units, mostly houses, to better accommodate the smaller households that dominate the modern-day waiting list has been in the works for more than a year and a half. It received federal approval in September, and residents were told then that they would receive 90-day notices on May 15.

Twenty-three of the families have already moved, and four have plans in place to do so, said project coordinator Sharon O'Hare. Eight of the units have sold, and three more have buy-sell agreements. Residents are receiving $1,200 to $1,300 for moving expenses as well as Section 8 rent vouchers, if they want them, that they can take to other cities or even out of state. Five of the households have left the public housing system, and one bought a house.

"We've paid over $25,000 out to families to help them move," said Shannon Parker, housing advocate hired by the housing authority to help tenants with the transition. "Some people have been able to leverage this into the next phase of their life."

For others, it has been more difficult. Mary Monroe, who lives with her two children in a three-bedroom house on Poplar Street and operates a day care for six children there, said she has been discouraged by the prices of rentals on the open market, even with a Section 8 voucher. Monroe, who has been a critic of the sale and replacement plan, said she has looked at about 30 houses and duplexes.

"At this point, after everything I've looked at that's affordable, it's really discouraging," she said. "It's kind of what I was concerned about originally. Where are people going to go?"

A Section 8 voucher picks up 60 percent to 70 percent of a qualified low-income tenant's rent, but it has ceilings set by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The limits are set to the local market. Monroe is looking for a three-bedroom home, and she can afford to pay $806 a month, including utilities.

"If there's nothing out there that you can afford, what are you going to do?" she said. "It's the same concerns I've always had."

For those able to buy houses, the sale and replacement plan has been a bonanza. The houses have been spruced up a bit before they've gone on the market, and they're all in the price range where Missoula has its most severe shortage, $100,000 to $125,000.

"In all cases, they're listing for more than their appraisals, which are a year and a half old," said O'Hare. "And the sale price is coming in a little over the listing price."

The houses have been listed with Fidelity Real Estate in Missoula, but to let all agents have a chance to sell them, the housing authority has been taking offers and holding them for two weeks before selling to the highest bidders. The last home drew seven offers.

All the homes but one will be owner-occupied, O'Hare said.

"Even the duplex went to an owner-occupant," she said. "And the majority are first-time home buyers. That's been a positive we've brought to the market."

Tenants are welcome to buy houses, but HUD rules have made that difficult, O'Hare said.

"HUD requires that every citizen has an equal opportunity and access to purchase these homes," she said. "That unfortunately means that HUD requires the tenant to move out before we can list the property. There has to be a level playing field. … There is an overall fairness issue which is not without its wrinkles."

The housing authority conceived the sale and replacement plan when its waiting list started backing up with smaller households. Through the 1990s, many larger families needing public housing left Missoula, whether because of the economy, housing costs or wages. The housing authority owned single-family houses that it bought in the '80s before prices went up, most of them older with large, unfinished basements that have to be heated. Some of the houses slated for sale are 2,500 to 3,000 square feet with two-car garages, and the average rent paid by public housing tenants is $196 a month.

"It's really inefficient and expensive to use single-family homes as public housing," said Parker.

The total appraised value of the housing set for sale is $4,715,500. The housing authority expects to have the sales completed by the end of the year. The money will replace the 45 units sold with more public housing in small multi-family developments as well as 35 to 45 units of affordable housing for smaller households, to be built at various locations around Missoula.

Parker said that the 200 or so landlords who work with the housing authority on Section 8 voucher households have been cooperative in helping find new rentals for the public housing tenants. She expects to be able to help the remaining households, too, though she also expects four or so households to be inconsolable about moving. However, she said, about 400 smaller households are in dire straits while they sit on the waiting list, and the housing authority has to try to serve the greatest good.

"You will have some people who are unhappy," she said. "But you've got four people here and 400 people here. How are you going to best meet the needs? We have 400 people who are unable to meet their housing needs, and many are elderly and disabled."

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