By Martin Kidston

Housing topped the Missoula Redevelopment Agency's monthly meeting on Wednesday, as the Board of Directors signed a memorandum with the city to create a new department focused on housing and economic development.

The board also awarded tax increment financing to two affordable housing projects, both located in or near the downtown district.

Two months ago, Missoula Mayor John Engen announced his plans to create the Department of Redevelopment, Housing and Economic Development.

The new department will be managed by MRA Director Ellen Buchanan with Eran Fowler-Pehan, the former director of the Poverello Center, serving as the city's new housing director.

“It's clear we need a shared governance model,” Engen said. “The relationship between (Buchanan) and (Pehan) is blossoming. Lots of good ideas are coming in the doors.”

The board approved the memorandum with the city after asking Engen to include a severance clause in the contract, one that would allow MRA to opt out of the agreement if it didn't work as envisioned.

MRA will also track the hours spent on housing versus its traditional task of redevelopment.

“We already track our time on projects because we have to know what urban renewal district to assess it against,” said Buchanan. “Any time I spend on housing that's not MRA related would be supported through entitlement grants the city gets.”

With its growing focus on housing, MRA on Wednesday also approved roughly $79,000 in tax increment financing to the North-Missoula Community Development Corporation.

The organization looks to deconstruct an unoccupied apartment house at 503 E. Front Street and replace it with seven affordable townhouses. Named after the property's recent owner Lee Gordon, the project will be operated as a community land trust, where residents own the buildings and NMCDC retains ownership of the land.

“We sell the homes to qualified individuals,” said Jerry Petasek, the organization's lands coordinator. “We're creating two four-bedroom homes for the first time ever. We've never done that before, and our price point is $150,000.”

The units will start at $130,000 on the low end and $150,000 on the high end. While the land will likely receive tax-exempt status, the new townhouses will generate additional tax revenue for the city.

They will also replace a building that's no longer habitable.

“This is neighborhood where there's a lot of run-down apartments and old houses broken up into apartments,” said Bob Oaks, executive director of NMCDC. “I think the future (of this district) is going to see that turnaround fairly rapidly.”

The board also approved a request from the Missoula Housing Authority to begin building a new apartment complex at 110 N. California Street. The project includes six units of permanently affordable housing, a portion of which could be reimbursed through tax increment financing later this year.

The land was donated to the housing authority by the city. The effort to construct the project has been two years in the making and relied upon a number of grants.

“It has been a very long process,” Lori Davidson, director of the Missoula Housing Authority, told MRA's board. “It demonstrates the difficulty of creating affordable housing, when you think about a process that's taken two years to build six units.”

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