Missoula trailer home residents increasingly face ‘economic eviction’

“We can’t take the human condition into account,” Councilwoman Michelle Cares said during this week’s discussion of a rezoning request in the Franklin to the Fort neighborhood. “We cannot put that into play.” (Missoula Current file photo)

The trailer homes that have provided some lower-income Missoula residents with an affordable place to live are gradually being displaced as property owners take advantage of the city’s building boom to redevelop their land.

More times than not, the new development produces homes or apartments that the trailer residents cannot afford, resulting in what Mayor John Engen calls an “economic eviction.”

The latest example came on Monday night, when the City Council approved the rezoning of property at the corner of Strand Avenue and Grant Street.

The new, denser zoning designation likely means the three trailer homes now on the site will be replaced by duplexes or other multi-family dwellings. Where the zoning once allowed four units, it now allows 12.

Council members were clearly worried about the impact on the trailers’ residents, while also cognizant of the private property rights of landowners Jeremy and Betsy Milyard.

But their hands were tied, they said.

“We can’t take the human condition into account,” Councilwoman Michelle Cares said. “We cannot put that into play.”

There are criteria that steer the council’s decision-making when property is rezoned: the city’s growth policy, public safety, compatibility with the neighborhood, and the like.

But the human toll of the property’s reclassification is not a consideration.

In the case of the property at Strand and Grant, in the Franklin to the Fort neighborhood, the landowners, not the city, initiated the rezoning request, said Councilwoman Heidi West.

And while the Milyards haven’t yet applied for a building permit, and in their rezoning application said they hadn’t decided exactly what they will build, it will certainly involve the trailers’ removal.

Under the new zoning, homes built on the property can be 1,000 square feet – rather than the previous 2,700 square feet. They can also be 45 feet high, rather than the previous maximum of 35 feet. And three times as many total dwellings can fill the same space.

Mayor John Engen said the city will reach out to the trailer home residents affected by Monday night’s rezoning decision, and try to help them find new homes. (Missoula Current file photo)

Missoula’s trailer houses “are disappearing incredibly fast,” West said. “There are repeated occurrences of this happening in our community. Most of the time, it doesn’t even come before us.”

“This is an incredibly heartbreaking potential future situation, and it’s happening all over our community,” she said. “Sadly, just about everything having to do with trailer houses is under state law or the county. Under city jurisdiction, there is very little we can do.”

Cares read from a letter submitted by the resident of one of the affected trailer homes to the Planning Board, which also approved the rezoning.

Calleen Collver-Holm owns one of the mobile homes at 1906 Strand and lives there with her 5-year-old child. She pays $325 in rent to live on the property. She cannot afford anything more on the $1,200 she lives on each month. A disability prevents her from working.

“Relocation would force her to incur thousands of dollars of debt,” Cares read from the minutes of the Planning Board meeting. “Her mobile home was purchased nine years ago and can no longer be relocated within city limits and may not be habitable following a move, if she was able to find a new lot to rent in the county. She knows of other mobile home owners who have had to relocate to Anaconda to find mobile home rental sites.”

Councilwoman Julie Merritt said she hopes the city’s new housing policy, due out this spring, will provide some answers for trailer home residents.

Engen assured her – and the residents affected by Monday night’s decision – that it will.

The mayor said he met on Monday with Erin Pehan, the city’s housing director, “and we talked a lot about economic eviction and the tools we hope you all will adopt to allow us to have some resources beyond hope to deal with situations like this.”

The reality, Engen said, “is that land in Missoula in incredibly valuable, and in places where people are not realizing that full value the market’s at play.”

Engen said he hopes that, in the future, the new housing policy combined with “directed intentional expenditures” will help “folks like the ones likely to be displaced here.”

The mayor also encouraged residents who live on the newly rezoned property to reach out to the city and begin the process of looking for replacement affordable housing. The city will help, he said, and has a process for the rapid relocation of families threatened with homelessness.

“We’ll plug them into our rapid housing team, so we can make sure the stress associated with this is mitigated as much as possible – so folks who need roofs over their heads have them.”

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