Affordable housing project nears completion in Old Sawmill District

Work crews apply the finishing touches to Sweetgrass Commons. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston

For the past few weeks, construction crews have faced a deep winter chill while placing the finishing touches on Missoula’s newest affordable housing project – 27 apartments within walking distance of the downtown district.

While upscale condominiums in the Old Sawmill District fetch a $300,000 price tag, the future residents of Sweetgrass Commons, who will live just down the street, will pay rent based upon their level of income.

The project is owned and managed by Homeword, a local nonprofit focused on affordable housing and housing education.

“In 2014, the market study for this project indicated that rental housing was in high demand, and there was a significant need for these 27 units in our community,” said Andrea Davis, Homeword’s executive director. “That need has only increased as the demand has skyrocketed over this past year.”

Over the past few years, housing affordability has emerged as a city-wide challenge. Since 1990, housing prices in Missoula have risen 114 percent when adjusted for inflation, placing the city within the top tier of metro areas facing rapidly rising home costs.

The median sales price of a Missoula home in 2015 was listed at $238,700, an all-time high according to the Missoula Organization of Realtors. To afford a home at that price, a family would require an annual income of $80,000 or more.

Rental prices have also ticked up, though not as rapidly as home prices. Still, Davis said, 52 percent of the city’s residents are renters, and the demand for affordable housing continues to outpace supply.

“Our goal is to empower people with essential skills and safe, healthy housing they can afford,” said Davis. “Every person who understands how to manage their household budget and make wise financial decisions for their family can become more self-sufficient, making our community stronger.”

Homeward was formed 1994 and has since built or renovated 528 housing units across the state for people earning 60 percent or less of the area median income. The addition of Sweetgrass Commons in Missoula, along with similar units in Bozeman and Bigfork, increases Homeword’s total housing stock to 723 units.

The location of the newest Missoula project places it on the heart of the city’s growing urban center. The Old Sawmill District was reclaimed from the former Champion mill site and includes tens of millions of dollars in both public and private investment.

Homeword has been eyeing the property for years.

“For nearly 20 years Homeword, along with other community housing advocates, has been encouraging the redevelopment of the former Champion mill site by repurposing it into a thriving urban neighborhood,” Davis said. “Good, strong urban infill in the core of our Montana communities is one of the most important sustainable development strategies Homeword embraces.”