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City of Missoula directing millions toward housing, homelessness

john engen
Posted at 12:47 PM, Jan 04, 2022

MISSOULA — The City of Missoula has directed several million dollars toward affordable housing and homelessness in its latest budget, and the two issues will remain front and center as 2022 gains momentum.

But it will also continue to welcome private development as part of its plan to boost housing stock across all price points.

Added up and the city allocated more than $4 million toward homelessness, shelters and services for the unhoused in its FY ’22 budget. It also provided nearly $3 million for housing services, and it’s expected to allocate around $3 million more from its Affordable Housing Trust Fund this year.

“When we are intentional about stuff, we actually make progress,” said Missoula Mayor John Engen. “Our housing work has been years in the making. We’re seeing clear investment, we’re seeing clear intentionality, and we’re seeing the product of that in the form of units coming out of the ground.”

The city’s new housing policy calls for an increase in housing stock across all price points, and while the private sector will take care of part of that, the city has placed its focus more acutely on affordability.

A number of sizable workforce and permanently affordable housing projects are currently under construction or being planned. Many of those projects enjoy public subsidies ranging from grants to the land beneath them.

“There’s plenty more to be done, but we’re ahead of so many communities dealing with housing shortages,” Engen said. “The same holds true with regard to our efforts to end homelessness. Some of this is experimental because no community has cracked the case, but we have the right folks engaged and pulling in the same direction, and we’re making progress.”

On the housing front, the city last year allocated $2.7 million to preserve 20 affordable rental homes and to provide down-payment assistance to new homeowners. It also partnered to construct 200 new affordable homes in the city.

But while those projects are intended to meet the city’s need for affordable housing, units across all price points are needed to help uncork the demand-jam that’s contributed to rapidly rising prices.

Work in the greater Mullan area will continue to advance this year, and a number of private, market-rate projects are planned in the downtown area, including the Missoulian property and land in the Riverfront Triangle.

While some have vocally railed against market-rate development, Engen said he supports private development, its investment and the amenities it brings to the city.

“Growth and development are part and parcel of what makes communities viable over time. This notion that development is the downfall of our community is inaccurate to me,” Engen said. “I’ve lived here my whole life, and growth and change and development are positive provided that we set sideboards and guidelines making them so.”

A project rendering of a $100 million development proposed in downtown Missoula.

The city also has invested heavily in the area of homelessness. By the end of last year, it had directed $1.4 million toward its Homelessness Management Navigation System and $50,000 toward its evaluation of the Reaching Home program.

It also directed funding from the American Rescue Plan Act toward the cause, including $635,000 for a sanctioned camping site on city property off Reserve Street. More than $560,000 went to fund a community care team and provide shelter security.

The care team is operated by the Partnership Health Center and provides medical, social and housing support to clients.

“We’re continuing to take meaningful steps to create solutions where they previously didn’t exist,” said Emily Armstrong, director of the city’s Reaching Home program. “We have to take action to address the highly complex challenge that is houselessness, which means that much of this is experimental and we’re learning and adapting as we implement.”

Armstrong said the city is working closely with the county and other service partners to establish new programs and provide shelter opportunities.

In the past year, the city and county have worked with those partners to create the Temporary Safe Outdoor Space on the south side of the city, and this month, a newly sanctioned outdoor camp is set to open on city property off Reserve Street, replacing the illegal camp under the bridge.

“We also continue to work to identify ways to ensure that the voices and expertise of neighbors who have been unhoused are central to our problem solving and guide our next steps,” Armstrong said. “Addressing this challenge must be done collectively as a community, and we’re on the right track to make meaningful change together.”

The city’s allocation of funding toward homelessness hasn’t stopped there. More than $430,000 is earmarked for a partnership with the Poverello Center to support the operation of the emergency winter shelter on Johnson Street.

Another $211,000 has been provided to the Poverello to support critical programming for the unhoused, and $830,000 has gone to support the Poverello’s efforts to provide transitional housing for veterans.

This year, the city also is expected to award two competitive grants from its Affordable Housing Trust Fund, including services for new home buyers and supporting the construction of new housing units.

“In December, the Affordable Housing Resident Oversight Committee set the Allocation Plan for 2022 – a set of guidelines to inform how the Affordable Housing Trust Fund investments will be prioritized,” said Emily Harris-Shears, who administrates the trust fund.

“New construction and preservation were prioritized following a review of data provided in the 2021 Landscape Assessment, which highlighted the lack of available supply, shrinking vacancy rates and rising housing costs in both the rental and for-sale markets.”

Added up, and city officials believe they’re beginning to move the dial on the city’s wide range of housing challenges.

“Our work in meeting Missoula’s housing needs started years ago when we agreed that we needed to be intentional in ensuring that working residents had quality housing, and you see that intentionality playing out in our various investments and efforts,” Engen said.