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Missoula Plan Aims To Boost Affordable Housing

(L-R) Missoula Mayor John Engen, County Commissioner Cola Rowley, County Commissioner Josh Slotnick and County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier during a press conference on affordable housing in Missoula, May 28, 2019.
Edward O'Brien
Montana Public Radio
(L-R) Missoula Mayor John Engen, County Commissioner Cola Rowley, County Commissioner Josh Slotnick and County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier during a press conference on affordable housing in Missoula, May 28, 2019.

More than 200 units of affordable housing are coming to Missoula, local officials announced Tuesday. It’s part of a big public-private collaboration involving several entities.

"This is a big deal, Missoula. This is a real big deal," says County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.

Missoula’s housing market is notoriously expensive. According to the Missoula Organization of Realtors the median price of a Missoula home reached a record high last year of $290,000. Local renter incomes, meanwhile, dropped almost 5 percent to about $29,000.

And, according to last year’s point-in-time survey, Missoula had one of the highest homeless populations in the state at 293.

Again, County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.

"We want to move the needle related to homelessness and providing for those who are most vulnerable in our community. I can tell you today with some level of confidence that I think this is a big step in that direction."

Missoula County is donating a 4 acre parcel of land near the local detention center on the west side of town to a group of nonprofits who will then build a 130-unit housing complex. At least 30 of those units will be reserved and deeply subsidized for the chronically homeless.

The remaining apartments will be rented to people making less-than 60 percent of area median income which is roughly $31,000 a year for individuals.

Another 70 apartments will be built at the now-vacant Skyview Mobile Home Park on Missoula’s Westside. The Missoula Housing Authority, a non-profit called Homeword, and a the for-profit Blueline Development propose to construct the housing, which will be financed using Low Income Housing Tax Credits. Meaning, Missoula taxpayers will not foot the bill for these housing projects, says Eran Fowler Pehan, the city’s Housing and Community Development director,

"This project is funded through private equity and through grants and other philanthropic contributions, but not through taxpayer contributions," Fowler Pehan says.

The larger apartment complex will also include a so-called ‘navigation center’ to offer services to renters, including the chronically homeless and people re-entering the community from the criminal justice system.

Fowler Pehan describes the plan, which includes help navigating health care, as a game changer for Missoula.

"I think that this is not only going to ensure that people have a safe, stable place to go and they’re not dying on the streets, but a development like this has the potential to save this community millions of dollars every year in uncompensated care in our hospital systems, and in inappropriate levels of care through police, fire and our jail and sheriff’s departments."

Organizers say local nonprofits including Open Aid Alliance, The Poverello Center and Partnership Health Center will help design programming to help the chronically homeless stay off Missoula’s streets.

Lori Davidson is executive Director of the Missoula Housing Authority.

"If any one of the pieces here wasn't here, it wouldn’t be happening," Davidson says. "I can’t tell you how excited we are."

This project will take a while to take root. Developers say even under the best of circumstances, construction probably won’t start until at least next summer, followed by an 18-month build out phase.

As of now, the county has not yet formalized the land donation. Commissioners are expected to sign a letter this week expressing their intent to donate the land off Mullan Road.

Public comment will be taken during that Wednesday meeting, with more to follow.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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