MISSOULA — The city and county of Missoula are both directing millions of dollars in funding toward homelessness and housing, including the purchase of property to keep some people housed.
One city investment will use $2.1 million to buy 20 housing units at the Bridge Apartments while Neighborworks, a non-profit, hopes to receive a $1.3 million grant to help 20 other residents purchase their mobile home park.
That funding pool was made available through the CARES Act.
“Access to homeownership continues to be further out of reach in our community,” said Kaia Peterson, executive director of Neighborworks. “We view this as a great way to support existing residents and also to address some of the COVID impacts we’re seeing.”
Peterson said manufactured and mobile home communities in and around Missoula face seeing their properties redeveloped. That leaves those residents at a higher risk of displacement.
Under the program, known as Resident Owned Communities, residents can purchase their mobile home park and create a stable and affordable place to live. The $1.3 million in funding would support the preservation of 20 homes, amounting to roughly $65,000 per household.
“Historically, we’ve been able to support this program without subsidies, without grant dollars or government dollars. But in the current market, that’s not realistic,” said Peterson. “There’s so much pressure for redevelopment, and pressure on rent increases that we aren’t able to purchase these properties at the rate the current sellers are looking to achieve.”
According to Peterson, without the grant, the current rate per lot in the targeted development would need to increase from $425 a month to $1,000 per month to support property acquisition and preservation. With the grant, however, Neighborworks could make a market-rate offer to a seller and maintain lot rent below $600 a month.
The effort has the support of the city.
“There’s no longer a landlord,” Mayor John Engen said. “The residents themselves own it. This helps the residents purchase the mobile home park and maintain it themselves.”
The city also is moving forward with the purchase of the Bridge Apartments – an agreement approved by the Missoula City Council on Monday night. That $2.1 million offer would also preserve 20 housing units, equating to $110,000 per household.
The residents of the facility are considered low-income with special needs.
“We should be taking care of these people, and making sure they’re welcome and safe and housed in our community,” said council member Gwen Jones. “That is the opportunity we have in front of us today.”
Still, the agreement to purchase the Bridge Apartments from Western Montana Mental Health remains controversial, as the building was constructed in the 1990s using taxpayer funding. Asking the public to buy the very building it paid to constructed has led some to oppose the deal.
Councilmember Jesse Ramos accused Western Montana Mental Health of abdicating its responsibility and taking advantage of the taxpayers. He also suggested the city was playing along by agreeing to the purchase and, as a result, was being irresponsible with taxpayer dollars.
“This is something, in my opinion, the government made a mistake on when it funded WMMH. Now the people left holding the bag are the taxpayers,” Ramos said. “There are people in this city right now who don’t qualify for those homes who could use those tax increment distributions and other methods of tax reduction to stay in their own home. This is government cleaning up after government.”
Among other things, the city’s new housing policy calls for the preservation of existing affordable housing, especially given the cost of constructing new housing. Maintaining 20 apartments for what amounts to $110,000 per unit falls below the market rate for housing, even if the funding is subsidized, some said.
The city will attempt to sell the property once its purchase closes and recover a portion of its $2.1 million investment.
“When I look at this project as an opportunity to save 20 people from ending up on the streets for the cost of $110,000 per home, I find that to be incredibly unique,” said council member Heather Harp. “Is it perfect? Absolutely not. But we’re at a point in our community where we have to follow our moral compass.”