Missoula Housing Authority plans 12-unit apartment project for homeless

The Cornerstone Apartments, pictured, including 12 one-bedroom units reserved for high-risk homeless in Missoula. (Image courtesy of Missoula Housing Authority)

A 12-unit apartment project proposed for a Missoula neighborhood could help a portion of the city’s homeless population establish stable housing and access vital services, even if they’re not yet able to go sober.

Lori Davidson, executive director of the Housing Authority, said her organization will submit a Housing Trust Fund application to the state this month in hopes of accessing roughly $1 million to help cover the $2 million project.

Combined with the Missoula Housing Authority’s donation of land and a hopeful $480,000 grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank, local housing advocates believe the project will be more competitive in the eyes of the state.

“We’re also contributing around $607,000 to the project,” Davidson said. “This is equity we’re pledging toward the project, and we’re hoping that additional infusion of cash from the Housing Authority will make it a little more attractive to the state when they go to score the applications.”

While the Poverello Center has a long history of serving the homeless in Missoula, it doesn’t accept those who’ve been drinking. The proposed Cornerstone Apartments, combined with the Uptown Apartments in downtown Missoula, could help close that gap.

Davidson said a recent study identified 40 people in Missoula who are “high users” of the city’s emergency system, including ER visits, police and fire calls, and reliance on other costly public services.

“Those people might be prime candidates for some of this housing,” Davidson said. “If we can get them into housing and access to the services they need, that brings 12 people out of this high usage of emergency services and brings down those costs. It has economic benefits as well as providing a huge benefit for the residents.”

When a housing expert from Boise State University addressed the Missoula City Council earlier this year, she said homelessness has long been viewed as a social challenge, though a growing number of cities are now approaching it through the lens of fiscal prudence.

Trips to the emergency room, interactions with police and visits to the court add up, costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars each year. Providing those users with stable housing, treatment and access to organized services can help lower costs to the public.

“We know the chronically homeless are some of the most vulnerable people in the community, and they’re using the vast majority of the resources we have available,” Vanessa Fry told the City Council during her visit. “They’re costing our taxpayers quite a bit of money.”

The apartments will sit across from the Valor House off California Street.

If the grant application for Cornerstone Apartments is approved and the project moves forward, Davidson said the units will be managed similar to the Uptown Apartments. While they also have no rule on sobriety, it has proved to be a successful community resource.

“The Uptown is one of our most successful and stable projects,” Davidson said. “Of the 14 tenants, I think we have five who were some of the original residents there 13 years ago. It’s very stable. Once people get that stable housing, they tend to keep it.”

The model follows what housing advocates describe as a “housing first” approach, where providing stable shelter gives tenants a chance to focus on improving their lives. Once they’re firmly housed through Missoula’s coordinated entry system, they’re introduced to a range of services and a self-sufficiency coordinator.

“They help them overcome barriers and provide referrals for them and hopefully get them into some kind of employment situation,” Davidson said. “That’s not possible for 100 percent of residents, but for those able to work, that’s one of the goals.”

The Housing Authority’s application has the support of the Missoula County commissioners. The project’s location, adjacent to the Valor House on California Street, provides easy access to transit lines and other amenities.

“It’s one small step toward addressing housing for folks who are homeless,” said Commissioner Jean Curtiss. “It’ll provide more apartments for folks who are not able to get into regular housing. We hope they get all the grants and things they need to build it.”