Diverse coalition forms to suggest affordable housing solutions for Missoula

Dick Novak is a single father of quadruplets, has extensive medical injuries, and lives in his car. Current housing assistance isn’t working for him, he said, encouraging changes that would help other Missoulians. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

Dick Novak is homeless. He’s tried to use state assistance to find a place to live, but says the help that’s out there doesn’t work for people like himself.

He’s the single father of college-aged quadruplets, has extensive medical injuries, and lives in his car. Two weeks before Christmas, he applied to rent a home through housing assistance but was unsuccessful. The home still sits empty today.

“The system just doesn’t seem to work for somebody like myself. The housing is not affordable,” Novak said. “I know we’re talking about affordable housing. It’s not, because when you go through it, you find out all the additional little items you have to pay for and they keep creeping up on you every month. They do them over and over. Pretty soon, you spend your money and now the house you find ain’t affordable no more.”

This is one of many stories from Missoulians experiencing homelessness or who have barriers keeping them from moving into a home.

At Thursday night’s housing assembly organized by the Missoula Interfaith Collaborative, organizations, churches and local nonprofits discussed possible solutions to the city’s affordable housing crisis.

“The cost of housing in Missoula compared to the average income of its residents is making it harder and harder to live here,” Mary Melton, asset manager for the Missoula Housing Authority, said. “The term affordable housing means people should be paying 30 percent of their gross income for rent and utilities.”

According to Melton, it’s a growing issue for both renters and entry-level homeowners. Within the city, about 75 percent of renters making $35,000 per year are cost-burdened and live paycheck to paycheck.

Now the Missoula Interfaith Collaborative is spearheading an effort and working with housing organizations to come up with solutions to the issue. Along with Missoula’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, Missoula organizations introduced five solutions that address local housing issues, which will be considered by the City Council at a later date.

Kaia Peterson, assistant director of NeighborWorks Montana and a member of the Missoula Housing Coalition, explained the importance of providing resources and support for renters. These include reducing fees for applications and creating a streamlined credit score and background check process.

Creating permanent affordable housing is key, she said, which can be done through federal housing program dollars and land trust homes. Incorporating resident-owned communities is another solution, meaning trailer parks can form cooperatives that can purchase land in order to avoid eviction through sale or development.

“This is a very complex issue. There is no one brilliant plan or individual solution that will change this situation. It really will take all of us thinking together and working together to make a difference,” Peterson said.

Other solutions look at housing density and eliminating single-family zoning, while also creating a Missoula housing trust fund that is recurring and designated by the city. This fund could help with permanent affordable housing, the preservation and remodel of units, assistance for first-time homebuyers and people with criminal backgrounds.

“None of this will be possible without strong public support. We should continue to grow the network of volunteer advocates committed to supporting individuals accessing housing and advocating for affordable housing,” she said. “There are no simple solutions, and it will require all of us working together to continue to make Missoula a place of opportunity.”

Novak wants to see changes implemented so the system works for all Missoulians. He’s told his story to many around the city, but few have listened. No one should wait months or even years for housing, he said.

“All you get is a ‘sorry.’ Sorrys don’t cut it when you’re sleeping in your car and it’s cold out there,” he said.

Seven City Council members turned out for Thursday night’s event, committing to addressing Missoula’s housing crisis. Mayor John Engen was sick and couldn’t attend the assembly, but passed on a few words through Councilman Bryan von Lossberg.

“More than two years ago, I, along with the Missoula City Council and our staff, committed to crafting and adopting policies and making investments that are in line with the recommendations the collaborative is considering. The extensive public process in crafting those policies will continue and we’re delighted to have a coalition of advocates to bring ideas and community support to bear on the effort,” von Lossberg said.

The Missoula Housing Coalition will hold a meeting at St. Paul Lutheran Church on Feb. 26 and March 19 at 6 p.m. to develop the housing solutions, as well as a meeting on April 4 to vote on solutions and ask for support from public officials.

Contact reporter Mari Hall by email at mari.hall@missoulacurrent.com.

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