Advocates urge Missoula County to donate property to affordable housing project

Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier, right, and Josh Slotnich, center, attend the May unveiling of an affordable housing project planned at two locations in Missoula. Commissioners will decide in the coming weeks whether to donate 5 acres of county land for project. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

A long list of partners and supporters made their case to Missoula County commissioners this week as to why they should donate 5 acres of valuable land to an affordable housing project that would include an array of social services.

The team of developers, including Homeword, the Missoula Housing Authority and BlueLine Development, plan to construct 200 units of affordable housing on two sites, including land owned by the county at Mullan Road and West Broadway.

Advocates believe the project would meet a number of community goals, including those defined in the city’s new housing policy, its plan to end homelessness, and the county’s jail diversion plan.

“This is less a donation and more an investment in our community,” Missoula Mayor John Engen told commissioners. “It’s the county’s opportunity to invest in a program that has demonstrated success in communities around the nation.”

As proposed, the project would include 70 units of workforce housing in the Northside neighborhood. The parcel previously housed the Skyview Trailer Park and was acquired by the housing nonprofit Homeword this week.

The Mullan site would offer low-threshold housing through an additional 130 units, along with an array of support services. Roughly 30 of the units would be reserved for those with housing vouchers, while the remaining 100 units would accommodate individuals and families earning less than 70 percent of the area median income, or $41,000 a year.

Andrea Davis, executive director at Homeword, said blending the two projects achieves critical mass and frees up the financing needed to see it to construction. Federal grants and a 4 percent low-income housing tax credit would fund the project.

No local tax dollars are planned for the project, Davis said.

“The scale of this project is truly what makes this feasible,” she said. “We’re going to build it as one large project for the financial feasibility.”

The city’s new housing policy calls for 600 new rental homes over the next five years. The units are needed to accommodate those earning less than 60 percent of the area median income, or roughly $32,000 a year.

Combined with other housing currently in development, Davis said, the new units planned by the project’s partners would leave the city just 30 percent shy of its immediate housing goal. But advocates contend the project would do even more by creating low-threshold housing and wraparound services.

“This is where we’ll accept people where they are and provide them with a safe and supportive environment, where they can become stable and a contributing member to our society,” said Lori Davidson, executive director of the Missoula Housing Authority. “It’s been proven to reduce chronic homelessness by about 30 percent nationwide.”

Davidson said it costs local taxpayers around $36,000 a year to support one chronically homeless individual, and roughly 20 percent of the city’s homeless qualify as chronically homeless. The cost to taxpayers can be cut in half when such individuals are placed in a supportive housing environment.

The project would also address a local shortage of rental housing available to voucher holders, Davidson said.

“One of the highest hurdles these families see after they get their (housing) voucher is simply the ability to find a place to rent,” said Davidson. “We’re going to place 30 of these vouchers in the Mullan Road site.”

Missoula Mayor John Engen urged the county to make the donation, calling it an investment in the community. (Missoula Current file photo)

While the project has received wide support since it was first unveiled in May, donating the land to affordable housing has raised concerns among some, including those who believe it betrays the public trust and will leave the detention center without room for future expansion.

Missoula County approved a $17 million general obligation bond to buy the property and build the jail in 1996. Voters passed the bond and the property was purchased a year later for roughly $4 million. The county has since paid the bond and debt service in full, and it has built the jail.

Rob Sheeter, who helped develop and build the detention center, said donating the unused portion of the property would leave the county in a pinch down the road. As it stands, he said, the county has an opportunity to consolidate its law enforcement services on the property.

“Voters were very pleased the county was planning ahead that far so they don’t have to repurchase land in order to expand the needs for the county,” he said. “You’ve got property that’s very key to anything the county needs to do in the future, and the property comes at a very high value. If there are future needs for the county to expand, you’re going to have to retax the taxpayers in order to accomplish that.”

But the jail already has the room it needs to expand, according to county staff. Missoula County Sheriff TJ McDermott supported the land donation as affordable housing, saying the units and support services would fill a community need.

“When we talk about homelessness, I think it’s also important to talk about addiction and mental health,” he said. “I applaud the city and county leadership for taking a look at this issue and trying to bring a solution forward that addresses this very critical need.”

In advising commissioners, Deputy County Attorney Anna Conley said that neither state law nor the bond language floated in the 1990s, required that “every square foot” of the parcel purchased for the jail be used as a jail.

Detention has changed since 1998, and so too have society’s views on jail alternatives, she said. Keeping people out of jail through essential social services meets the public’s intent with the bond.

“There’s nothing that requires us to use every square foot of it forevermore for detention, as envisioned in 1998,” she said. “To require a local government to never repurpose or expand on assets or land that were purchased with bonds would be an insufficient use of taxpayer funds. There are a number of alternatives to detention and resources for jail diversion in this project, including sustainable housing, substance abuse and mental health treatment.”

The development would also include a $1 million reserve to operate a “navigation center” on the site. The center would offer a range of services including a medical clinic, jail reintegration, food security, income management and job training, among others.

In other words, supporters said, it would provide the foundation needed to get the city’s most vulnerable residents back on their feet.

“We have people here who need help, and the only way they’re going to get it is if we do something,” Engen said. “Doing nothing is not an option. This is a very important something. The financial package is remarkable, the costs are contained, the outcomes are predictable, and I would be grateful as a resident of Missoula County if you support this investment in taking care of the people we need to take care of.”