-Sherry Devlin reporting for the Missoula Current
MISSOULA – Residents of Missoula’s Franklin to the Fort neighborhood attacked a proposed affordable housing project for senior citizens as “an insult” and “an assault” at a public hearing Monday night.
The 36-unit Skyview apartment complex “disrespects the values” of the neighborhood lined with owner-occupied single-family homes, said Malcolm Lowe, who said he represented many residents who live in the six-block Rangitsch addition built in the late 1950s.
“It’s a working-class neighborhood which expresses the dignity of the American dream and the rewards of hard work,” Lowe said. “To infect our neighborhood with density as high as one dwelling per 500 square feet of land is to disrespect the values that have made Missoula such a great and desirable city. We are the workers. We are the taxpayers. We are the ones who plant flowers and mow our lawns and raise good kids.”
Covering one acre at 2400 Ninth St. W., the Skyview development would be an “ugly glaring contrast” to those quiet, well-kept, hard-earned homes, he said.
A litany of Lowe’s neighbors followed, some shouting, nearly all visibly angry.
Donna Ferguson, who has lived in the neighborhood for 47 years, was furious that the multi-story apartment building would “look down in our yards and on us, taking away our privacy. You are raising an assault on our neighborhood.”
“There will be traffic,” she said. “We’ll be hit with sidewalk SIDs. We’ll get to shovel snow, now that the city mandates, for somebody else to walk on. It’s a good area and we’ve worked hard.”
“We’re not willing to support greedy developers,” Ferguson said. “Just say no.”
At issue was Housing Solutions LLC’s application to the Montana Board of Housing for federal housing tax credits, which would offset some construction costs and allow the developer to charge significantly less for rent.
The board requires the City Council to conduct a public hearing on the proposal, and for the transcript of that hearing to be included with the application for tax credits.
The notion is to gauge community support for a project, as well as community need.
As proposed, the development would be limited to those ages 55 and older who make less than $29,500 a year. Rent would start at roughly $525 a month for a one-bedroom unit and $630 for two bedrooms, with utilities paid.
A market study last year estimated an immediate need for 266 units of affordable senior housing, with 40 or more additional units needed every year for the foreseeable future. “Each year, we are falling farther behind,” said developer Alex Burkhalter.
He proposed a similar project on Cooley Street last year, but lost the property when the Board of Housing passed it over for tax credits. The renewed search for bare ground yielded the Ninth Street tract where four duplexes were originally approved, a considerably less dense (and less controversial) development.
Many of those testifying Monday conceded that Missoula has an affordable housing crisis, affecting seniors and non-seniors alike. But neighborhood residents insisted that the Franklin to the Fort site is all wrong.
There are no sidewalks, they said. Or stoplights. The traffic is already problematic, Lowe said, and the apartments would add another 300 cars a day.
The nearest thoroughfare is North Reserve Street, which is “a nightmare,” Ferguson said. The nearest grocery store is a mile away, too far for Skyview’s elderly residents to walk with a bag of food.
David McClain said he’s “sympathetic to senior citizens.” But he does not want a dense development putting people “on top of each other.”
“There are people who are willing to live in that density,” he said. “The people in our neighborhood are not willing to live in that density. That’s why they bought single-family homes.”
“I wish you would keep in mind that we have a certain lifestyle that we don’t want changed overnight,” McClain said. “I mean, that building is going to cast shadows on my orchard. It’s going to block out sunlight probably. There is a need for this. But not in a single-family neighborhood.”
The city should instead purchase the land and designate it as open space, he said, so people have a place to walk their dogs.
But a handful of those at Monday night’s meeting and some Missoula City Council members endorsed the project, emphasizing the plight of many Missoula senior citizens. A few shared their own stories.
A woman who identified herself simply as Carol, said she is a widow who followed her daughter to Missoula eight years ago, taking a studio apartment downtown for $500 a month, believing it would be short term.
She is 70 years old.
Recently, she asked that her single-pane storm windows be replaced. Instead, she was told that her rent was going up – pricing her out of the apartment, which was in “a terrible state of disrepair,” Carol said.
Now she lives in the basement of a friend’s house, and all her belongings are in storage. She would love a chance to live somewhere like Skyview, she said.
“There’s got to be a place for seniors who are active like myself, in that $500 to $600 a month range where we can maintain some decency,” Carol said. “You’ve got to find space for us. We’re being run out of these buildings that are substandard but we suck it up and we do it, because we can’t get to that next bracket.”
Cathy Campbell told of being forced to sell her home in the Slant Street neighborhood after her husband died. Suddenly, she had to pay someone to mow the lawn and shovel the sidewalks. Soon after that, she realized that she simply could not afford to stay in her home.
Now she lives in the Lynnwood apartments, just three blocks away, an affordable senior housing project. She eats lunches at the Missoula Senior Center, which she relies upon for socializing too.
“It will happen to every one of you,” Campbell said, pointing to the Franklin to the Fort residents. “The next step is you have to give up your car, either because you can’t afford it or because you shouldn’t be driving.”
There’s no doubt in Campbell’s mind that the Skyview apartments are necessary, she said. “I’ve been there. I had a large home, a big yard. I loved it. But I couldn’t stay there.”
The appeals for compassion did not sway the neighborhood residents, though.
John German, who lives on Ninth Street, lamented that “years ago, care of the elderly fell to the children. Apparently, now that care falls to those in the Franklin to the Fort neighborhood.”
“You know, that project on Ninth Street is only going to take care of 36 people and we’ve got hundreds of people we’ve got to think about and after that, thousands as the years go by. We need a project a lot larger than what can be built on Ninth Street.”
Nobody in the neighborhood wants the project, German said. “The people that support this project do not live in our neighborhood. You can take Franklin to the Fort and knock the whole damn place down and fill the whole place with complexes … but you’re never going to get rid of the homeless. That problem is going to go on for years and years. …
“It’s an awful lot of crying and whining and talking to save, what, 36 people? Give me a break.”