Trinity affordable housing project “in a good place,” though details linger

Missoula County donated four acres of land just east of the Missoula County Detention Center to a planned affordable housing project last year. Questions remain on whether the property will be subdivided or left as one parcel. (Missoula Current file photo)

City and county officials continue to work through the lingering complexities of an affordable housing development planned on county land off Mullan Road.

The property was once associated with the Missoula County Detention Center, though the county donated it to an affordable housing project that will provide roughly 130 units of affordable housing, along with wrap-around services.

But issues around subdividing the parcel, and if that’s even necessary, must be resolved. The coronavirus pandemic and the shelter-in-place order has delayed communication between city and county government.

“The subdivision piece appears to be a little harder than we necessarily think it needs to be,” Mayor John Engen told commissioners in a virtual call on Thursday. “I think we need to get in a room, or a virtual room, in regard to that minor subdivision. It sounds like concerns coming from the sheriff’s office with regard to siting and a few other issues, like road locations, are really part of the design challenge.”

Eran Pehan, director of the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development, said issues around subdividing the lot and whether that takes place must be made sooner rather than later.

The project received Low Income Housing Tax Credits, which come with a timeline.

“The difficulty is that some of these decisions need to be made really quickly,” said Pehan. “Meeting the timeline before the project needs to close to maintain (tax credit) investment is doable, but it’s going to be tight.”

Pehan said the project can’t finish final design until the issues are resolved, including whether the parcel should remain whole or be subdivided into two or three lots. She said those behind the project prefer to see two lots created, one reserved for housing and the other for future county use.

“The creation of only one additional lot through minor subdivision gives us more flexibility in terms of open space requirements, and it works better for the project,” Pehan said. “In the future, if the county wishes to subdivide off that separate parcel for development purposes from the larger detention center site, the county could do that.”

County commissioners said they were unaware of any plans to subdivide the parcel, calling it unnecessary. If the county needed the additional space created by a second parcel, it could cross that bridge down the road.

“If the remainder was to be used for a future detention facility or county expansion, that’s likely years or decades down the road,” Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said. “If it’s just county expansion, why would we even need to contemplate creating an additional lot? I thought we were close to being where we needed to be.”

The affordable housing project remains on task and was made possible by the county’s land donation and the city’s willingness to issue tax exempt bonds. Combined with the Low Income Housing Tax Credits, the public contribution will save the developer around $670,000 in costs, allowing it to pass the savings on to future tenants.

County officials doesn’t believe subdivision is necessary. Both city and county leaders pledged to meet to resolve the lingering hurdles, agreeing the recent pandemic has challenged communication.

“The goal is to create the one lot for them (the developer),” said Chris Lounsbury, the county’s chief administrative officer. “It doesn’t really matter the mechanism for the northern piece. If it just stays part of the parent parcel, that’s fine. I don’t think we need it to become its own separate lot.

“We just need to get everyone in a room.”