Grants director questions Mayor Engen’s new housing proposal

Sweetgrass Commons, an affordable housing project, undergoes construction near the Old Sawmilll District in Missoula on Monday. City Mayor John Engen looks to craft a new housing policy and realign the city’s housing grants. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston

When Missoula Mayor John Engen unveiled his blueprint to form a new housing department last week, it was billed as the first step in creating a team to execute a forthcoming housing policy – a policy he believes the city sorely needs.

But the director of the Department of Grants and Community Programs with Missoula County is questioning the mayor’s proposal, saying his push to bring several grant program under municipal oversight could hurt the city’s nonprofits.

In a weekend email, Cindy Wulfekuhle criticized the lack of communication surrounding the mayor’s initiative, calling it a slight to a program that has successfully landed various grants and created housing for the city’s low-income families for years.

“I hope you understand what a slap in the face the mayor’s actions are to both your grants staff and the nonprofits in this community…” Wulfekuhle wrote in her email. “The impact of removing city financial support from the grants department has far-reaching implications other than housing.”

In a meeting last week with the Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s Board of Directors, Engen announced his intention to create a new housing division – one of his major initiatives for 2016. The new program would craft a city housing policy, which Engen believes is greatly needed.

Eran Fowler Pehan, director of the Poverello Center, has been tapped to manage the program while MRA Director Ellen Buchanan has agreed to serve as the deputy CAO of Redevelopment, Housing and Economic Development – a newly created position.

The city currently contracts with Missoula County to manage a number of housing and infrastructure grants, including CDBG and the HOME program, though that would change under the new arrangement. Wulfekuhle believes the move could reduce the ability of local nonprofits to provide services.

“It takes multiple sources to make a project work, and we can help patch these (grants) together and make it work,” Wulfekuhle said Monday. “It’s frustrating that MRA is going to get into the business of housing. It’s frustrating that nonprofits missed an opportunity to partner with MRA and create more housing opportunities.”

Engen acknowledged the good work done by Missoula’s nonprofits, though in unveiling his plan, he envisions a more streamlined process with more “intentionality” around the way the city invests in housing.

While the current approach has led to the creation of smaller housing projects across the city, Engen said, they’ve done little to meet the larger need – a need that steadily grows.

Engen couldn’t immediately be reached Monday for comment.

“I’ve become increasingly frustrated that we don’t have a housing policy here in the city of Missoula,” Engen said last week. “Nor do we have much intentionality around the way we make public investments in housing. The way we get there is to have a team dedicated to creating a policy and executing that policy.”

Wulfekuhle said the grants staff has secured and administered millions of dollars over the years to fund housing and economic development, as well as substance abuse and relationship violence services, among other social needs.

She noted several past achievements, include a $5 million one-time grant secured by her staff to create 115 units of affordable housing with the Missoula Housing Authority. She also cited work done in partnership with Homeword, a nonprofit, to create affordable housing across the community.

“Much of the funding was secured through the county and most of the benefit was to city residents,” Wulfekuhle said. “There has been no further communication from the mayor to let us know that he intended to move forward with such a drastic change.”

Wulfekuhle said she offered her department’s expertise to help the city shape its plan, though the city didn’t follow up with the offer. She said it’s not the first time her office has been shut out of city discussions regarding housing needs and how best to meet them.

Wulfekuhle said the Missoula Housing Task Force excluded staff from her office, including two members who manage city and county funds identified as a source to pay for a potential wet housing initiative – another issue on which Wulfekuhle has disagreed with the mayor’s housing experts.

“I have not heard from the community that using our limited resources for wet housing is a higher priority than providing housing and services for low-income families and children,” Wulfekuhle said. “The mayor is very good at moving forward with what he wants and making sure his supporters are in place before he announces his plans.”

Engen has billed his housing proposal as being revenue neutral. He said the city currently directs roughly $160,000 from the General Fund to support grants administration with the county. The grants themselves provide another $150,000 in revenue, leaving the new housing program with roughly $300,000 to work with.

Wulfekuhle said city funding directed toward her office supports eight employees, or roughly 4 full-time equivalents. It was suggested at a Missoula County administrative meeting last week that the city’s housing proposal could result in county layoffs within the grants department.

“If the mayor’s taking out things in the county related to housing, what does that mean to staffing?” Commissioner Jean Curtiss said. “What the city does will effect what we do at the county.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com