The city’s proposed purchase of an affordable housing complex currently up for sale drew mixed comments from members of the Missoula City Council on Monday night, just hours after the deal was publicly announced.
The council will ultimately decide whether to approve or deny the city’s proposed $2.2 million offer on the 21-unit property in the coming weeks, and council comments on Monday were far from binding. But they could offer insight to the debate that’s likely to form around the proposed purchase.
On Monday, a $25,000 payment to Stewart Title ahead of the proposed deal was separated from other items on the City Council’s agenda as a matter of debate. In the end, the expense passed on a 9-3 vote.
“I have no doubt we’ll probably be getting a good market value on this, whatever that might be,” said Jesse Ramos, who opposed the payment. “I don’t think the city should be in the business of owning apartments, and I don’t think we’ve had enough public debate or public comment around this decision.”
The city on Monday morning said it had submitted an offer on the Bridge Apartments for the asking price of $2.2 million. Missoula Mayor John Engen described the opportunity to purchase the property and preserve it as affordable housing in perpetuity as a win for the community.
The property, constructed in the 1990s, is currently owned by Western Montana Mental Health and has served as affordable housing for those with disabilities ever since. However, the required window of affordability has expired and if the property were to fall into private ownership, it could result in the displacement of its current residents.
“Given the housing environment we’re in right now, preserving these homes for people with disabilities is absolutely critical. Putting these people out on the street right now could very well be a death sentence for them,” said council member Julie Merritt. “I know the city laying out another $2.2 million to purchase property is a thing people don’t understand very well.”
Ramos’ vote against the $25,000 expense largely focused on what he described as a lack of community input regarding the propose acquisition. The mayor contends that the city must act quickly to close the deal, given the free market and other potential buyers.
The proposed purchase has been circulating for months, dating back to at least May when the city’s interest became clear after Western Montana Mental Health bypassed the city’s offer in favor of another buyer. The buyer has since dropped out, officials have said.
“I think the community has been talking about it for six months now,” said council member Gwen Jones. “I’m thrilled that we’re moving forward. It’s wonderful for this community.”
Another sticking point could be the funding source in which Western Montana Mental Health used to build the apartments in the first place. It received public funding to cover the cost of construction in exchange for keeping the property as affordable for a set period of years.
Give that the public built the property to begin with only to purchase it again has raised frustrations among some and was considered by others as an unprofessional move by Western Montana Mental Health.
“It was originally purchased with public dollars, with taxpayer dollars,” said council member Sandra Vasecka, who also opposed the appraisal fee. “I don’t like double dipping.”
Housing, particularly affordable housing, has become a central theme in this year’s municipal races. During Monday’s mayoral debate, it dominated long portions of the discussion.
If the city were to end its efforts to secure the property and transfer it to a qualified owner or manager such as Providence Supportive Services, it could further deepen the ongoing challenge of preserving affordable housing in the community.
“One of the most effective ways to house folks is to ensure that they’re not homeless to begin with,” Engen said. “Our agreement with Western guarantees long-term, stable housing for residents who would otherwise be exceptionally vulnerable in Missoula’s tight real-estate market.”
The City Council is expected to officially debate the proposed purchase soon.