Missoula to explore non-purchase options to keep affordable apartments in use

With the required period of affordability sunsetting on a Missoula apartment complex, the city and county plan to explore options that don’t require an outright purchase of the property, but one that will keep it under its current ownership and use.

Paying Western Montana Mental Health’s $2.19 million asking price for the Bridge Apartments on West Broadway is considered a last resort, county officials said Thursday.

It’s also an option they’re reluctant to explore since public funding was given to Western Montana Mental Health in the 1990s to build the property in the first place.

“Maybe there’s something we can do to support Western to keep them owning it and managing it,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “This isn’t just another old apartment building. This property, with these specific tenants, needs to be managed in a very appropriate way.”

Western Montana Mental Health received public funding to build the Bridge Apartments in exchange for keeping the units affordable for a period of time.

The required period of affordability has expired, however, and Western Montana Mental Health has placed the property for sale. That has raised concerns about losing 20 units of affordable housing at a critical point in time, and what will happen to the tenants who live there.

“It provides affordable rents for folks with either physical or mental limited capacity to stay in their homes,” county CAO Chris Lounsbury said. “The hope here is that the city and county can partner together with other partners to put together funding that would allow that property to stay with its original purpose.”

While Missoula County’s poverty level has shown a steady decline since 2016, it’s still estimated at around 11% of the local population, according to figures released this week by the Missoula Organization of Realtors.

At the same time, housing prices across the region have surged, hitting $425,000 in the First Quarter of 2021. The vacancy rate in the rental market lingers at around 1%, and average rents are on the rise.

Break it down and now is not the time to displace 20 low-income tenants who have stable and existing housing, the county said.

“The ask to Western Montana Mental Heath to consider not divesting themselves of this property at this time, maybe that ship has sailed,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “But emerging from a pandemic and the other housing and homeless issues we’re wrestling with, it’s not a great time for a radical move like this.”

City housing officials couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on Thursday.