Central Missoula: City Council sets public hearing on low-income senior apartment complex

The urgency for affordable senior housing is clear, said Councilwoman Julie Armstrong. “This need becomes more and more important every year.”

Missoula senior citizens’ need for low-income housing is “now to the point of being desperate,” City Councilor Julie Armstrong said Monday night, and the proposed Skyview development is one way to start addressing the crisis.

But some council members question the 39-unit apartment complex’s location at 2400 Ninth St. W., in the Franklin to the Fort neighborhood, believing the area is disproportionately targeted for high-density development.

And that created questions Monday about whether the council should even schedule a public hearing on the proposal, as required by the Montana Board of Housing for all projects seeking housing tax credits.

In fact, Councilman John DiBari voted against setting the July 15 hearing – although eight other council members voted “yes” – and complained that federal and state rules run counter to the goal of “equitably distributing all types of housing across the city.”

But Councilwoman Julie Armstrong encouraged DiBari and Councilwoman Michelle Cares, who opposed the development at a committee meeting last week but was absent Monday, to consider senior citizens’ desperate need for affordable housing.

Cares, who represents the neighborhood where the project is planned, said the area has already faced significant changes related to high-density development. In fact, residents expressed concerns over parking and traffic related to a smaller subdivision once proposed for the same 1.2-acre lot.

But the need for senior housing is clear, countered Armstrong. “This need becomes more and more important every year.”

Withholding support for the Skyview apartments, which were turned down for the tax credits last year, “is a shot in the gut,” she said. “This developer is extremely thoughtful and consistent.”

Housing Solutions LLC is Missoula-based and its principal, Alex Burkhalter, has 18 years of experience creating affordable housing in and around Montana.

Burkhalter brought another low-income senior housing project to the City Council and then the Montana Board of Housing in 2018, also seeking low-income tax credits. The project came within one vote of passing muster with the state board, but ultimately fell short.

Without the tax credits, the project fell through and Burkhalter could not buy the Westside property where the apartments were to be built.

This year, he’s back with another low-income senior housing project, located this time on bare land in central Missoula.

As proposed, this project features 39 units of affordable new construction rental property for senior citizens.

Eran Pehan, director of Missoula’s Office of Community Development, explained that Housing Solutions is seeking a 9 percent low-income housing tax credit, “which provides for the greatest amount of private equity but which is also the most difficult to get because of intense competition for these credits at the state level.”

If approved by the Board of Housing, investors receive annual tax credits equal to 9 percent of the eligible basis of a rental development project, Pehan said.

And developments that occur in a qualified low-income census tract – of which Missoula has four, including Franklin to the Fort – receive a 30 percent boost in the equity that can be included in the project.

(A qualified census tract is one in which 50 percent of the households have incomes below 60 percent of the area’s median income, or which has a poverty rate of 25 percent or more.)

So construction of low-income tax credit housing is geographically limited in Missoula and all other cities, Pehan said, and it “has become difficult if not impossible to build these homes outside low-income census tracts.”

The idea of the tax credit is to lower construction costs so the developer can then provide housing at significantly lower rents to low-income residents.

The Skyview apartments would be reserved for Missoula residents age 55 and older earning up to $29,580 for a one-person household and $33,840 for a two-person household.

Rental rates, which include owner-paid electric, heat and W/S/G, would be between $525 and $715 per month for a one-bedroom and $630 and $815 for a two-bedroom.

Councilwoman Gwen Jones said her work as a volunteer delivering Meals on Wheels has shown her the intense need for better, lower-priced housing for many Missoula senior citizens.

“I understand the concerns of the neighborhood, but we just can’t afford to get picky about where these are located,” Jones said. “There are seniors living in places that are not good.”

Both Jones and Pehan said Missoula needs to find a way to work together with neighborhoods to locate low-income housing – be it for senior citizens, families or single adults.

Councilman Bryan von Lossberg, while voting to set the public hearing, said he shares DiBari’s concerns about the proposed location of the Skyview development, as well as the process involved.

The July 15 public hearing will take place during the regular Monday night City Council meeting. However, the council will not vote on the proposal or make a recommendation, said City Clerk Marty Rehbein.

Instead, the minutes of the meeting will be included with the developer’s application to the Montana Board of Housing and the public comments will be considered by board members as they mete out the tax credits to projects from across the state.

That process is dictated by the federal government.