WMMHC bypasses city’s offer for apartments; goes with another buyer

The pending sale of a 20-unit apartment complex prized for its affordability has found a buyer, though it doesn’t include the city or county of Missoula, or the city’s homeless shelter.

Western Montana Mental Health Center on Tuesday confirmed that it had received three full-price offers for the Bridge Apartments, which it had listed for sale for $2.19 million earlier this year.

It also confirmed that it was now negotiating a sale with one of the three buyers who it couldn’t yet disclose.

“The board reviewed the initial offers and is in negotiation with the person with what we considered the best offer,” said Board President Jean Curtiss. “Our hope and goal is to have an offer that will give Western the opportunity to reinvest in our providing of behavioral health services within this community and others in Western Montana, and resulting in an ownership that will continue to provide affordable housing for the people who live there.”

While Western Montana said it’s seeking surety in its agreement with its chosen buyer that it will keep the 20 residents housed at an affordable rate, the lack of certainty has the city concerned.

Missoula Mayor John Engen on Tuesday said the city made a full-price offer last week and responded with a counter offer on Friday.

“We were very surprised to hear from our realtor that our offer had been rejected, because we believe the city is in the best position to keep residents housed,” Engen said. “We do not know who the buyer is because Western has not told us. We also don’t know why our offer was rejected or not subject to another counter-offer. We’ve been assured that Western’s goal is to perpetuate the current use of the Bridge, but without knowing who the buyer is, we are concerned.”

Western Montana Mental Health received public funding to build the Bridge Apartments in the 1990s in exchange for keeping the units affordable for a period of time.

The required period of affordability has expired, however, and the organization placed the property for sale. That raised concerns over losing 20 units of affordable housing and what would happen to the tenants who live there.

Engen said the city and county had been discussing the fate of the Bridge Apartments for several years, as well as a separate four-unit home owned by Western Montana.

But that was before the American Rescue Plan was passed, and funding from the Missoula Redevelopment Agency and other resources came into play. Without that funding, Engen said, it would have been difficult for the city to make a $2 million purchase.

“Now, however, we have resources and are absolutely committed to keeping this publicly subsidized property in public hands,” Engen said. “Western listed the properties a few weeks ago without making the city or county aware. I am disappointed, to put it mildly, and I hope the board will reconsider.”

Curtiss said she and Western Montana CEO Levi Anderson had met with Engen regarding the Bridge in December of 2019. More recently, they met with Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick and city housing director Eran Pehan to discuss transitioning ownership of the apartments to another entity with “the expertise and vision to serve the folks living there.”

Western has kept the rent at below the current rate for similar facilities, even though the residents are not clients of the organization. Curtiss said Western needs to invest in other programs that do serve its clients.

She added that Western had met with various groups about the apartments, including the Poverello, St. Patrick Hospital, and the city and county. None of them made an offer when discussions first began, she said.

“The city and the county said they did not have a pot of money to buy the Bridge at the time of our conversations. The Board voted to put the property on the market and see who responded,” she said. “Our realtor is very aware that we were interested in finding a buyer that would continue to serve this clientele and keep the rents affordable.”

Curtiss said the city’s offer will serve as the back-up offer, the organization said.