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Public funding twice? City and county look to buy Bridge Apartments as affordable housing

Bridge Apartments
Posted at 4:35 PM, May 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-26 10:50:46-04

MISSOULA — The potential sale of an apartment building constructed years ago for affordable housing has city and county officials looking for ways to buy the property, which is listed for $2.19 million.

But some elected officials are concerned about using public money to purchase a project that was initially built with public funds. Essentially, the property’s owner, Western Montana Mental Health Center, could benefit twice, all on the public dime.

“There’s something hard to swallow about a large facility purchased twice with public money, which looks like something we’re about to do,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick.

Western Montana Public Health received public funding to build the Bridge Apartments in the 1990s in exchange for keeping the units affordable for a period of time. The facility includes 20 units measuring 480 square feet each.

But the required period of affordability has expired and the property has been placed up for sale on the open market. That has raised concerns about losing 20 units of affordable housing, and what will happen to the tenants who live there.

“It would be an unacceptable outcome for these residents to be displaced and become essentially homeless,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “That’s the true irony in this as we try to address the broader issue of people unhoused in our community. This is maybe not the time to contemplate divestiture.”

The project is one of several now on the market. Berkshire Hathaway also has 3.3 acres on S. 5th Street West listed for sale at $3 million. The property currently includes around 2 dozen mobile homes and is subdivided into 24 lots.

Similar mobile home parks around Missoula have been sold in the past for redevelopment, essentially requiring the tenants who had lived there to move. Affordable housing is a key tenant in the city’s housing plan, which calls for retaining existing affordable housing across the city.

The potential sale of the Bridge Apartments has county officials concerned, even as they question a second investment of public money into the same property.

“It was constructed with public funding with the requirement there be a period of affordability associated with that,” Lounsbury said. “That period has expired. Those restrictions come off the title. That leaves the owner of the property free to do with it as they chose once that encumbrance is removed.”

Missoula Mayor John Engen is aware of the potential sale of the Bridge Apartments. In a statement, he said he and the county “are currently working to ensure that the Bridge Apartments remain in nonprofit hands and that tenants will continue to live there.”

Last week, Engen said he’d explore using funds from the American Rescue Plan for housing, so long as the U.S. Department of the Treasury authorized the funding for such uses.

On Monday night, some members of the City Council supported a public purchase of the property. However, they didn’t mention the initial public investment that was used to construct the facility, meaning the city could buy the same property it helped pay to build.

“It’s a really incredible deal for a portion of our community, that can keep those homes permanently affordable,” said council member Heather Harp. “I hope you (Engen) do everything you can to secure that funding.”