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New city housing department looks to address cost, inventory with new policies

By Martin Kidston

The Missoula Redevelopment Agency and the city have agreed to share resources in launching a new housing department, one that will work to address affordability and create more inventory through a new housing policy.

While favorable to the program, several members of the City Council expressed lingering concerns over the program’s future costs, its potential impact on community nonprofits, and how the department’s appointed director – who also heads the MRA – can manage the responsibilities of both positions.

Ellen Buchanan, director of the MRA and the city’s new Department of Redevelopment, Housing and Economic Development, said she’s ready for the challenge. While MRA is busy with a growing list of projects, she believes the added focus on housing intertwines with the agency’s existing mission.

“We’ve got a competent staff,” said Buchanan. “What this is going to allow me to do is be way more involved in policy and with large, complex projects instead of writing development agreements and managing invoices. I’m comfortable we can keep the balls in the air.”

MRA’s Board of Directors initially voiced concerns over the new department’s governance and how it would fit within MRA when Mayor John Engen unveiled the concept earlier this year.

The board later agreed to sign a memorandum of understanding with the city, once the city assured the board that expenses would be handled separately and that economic development initiatives involving MRA would remain under the agency’s supervision.

Engen believes MRA remains well suited to house the new department, given its experience with economic development, and its use of tax increment financing (TIF) to bring projects to fruition.

“We have some opportunities there, and we have housing projects within those TIF districts today,” Engen said. “MRA has experience working with both the private and nonprofit communities. It made sense that the housing office be attached to MRA.”

Missoula’s lack of housing has been attributed in part to its rapidly rising housing prices. The Missoula Economic Partnership, which has launched a workforce housing study, also believes that the city’s housing costs have placed Missoula at an economic disadvantage, particularly when attracting new businesses.

Engen said the city has never had a strategic housing policy, though he expects that to change under the newly created department. He believes it address the challenges in a more intentional way.

“This provides an opportunity for us to create policy by better understanding the marketplace,” Engen said. “We have an inventory issue. That inventory issue spans all segments of the market. Through policy and the application of resources, we hope to meet those inventory needs in a way that has the most collective impact.”

Eran Pehan, who was appointed to serve as director of the Office on Housing and Community Development, said her office is now working on logistics and the office’s organizational structure. The office sits with the Department of Redevelopment, Housing and Economic Development.

The office already has contracted a former grants employer to consult on Brownfield grants with federal agencies. It also has hired a lead grant administrator from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and a new coordinator to support and steer local housing initiatives.

“We have one additional hire to make, which will be an additional grant administrator,” said Pehan. “We’ll make that hire later this year or early next year once we get an idea of what the additional workload is and the skill set we need.”

While council members are largely supportive of the department’s creation and its mission, several members expressed lingering concerns.

Among them, Ward 3 council member Gwen Jones asked how MRA will balance TIF funding between redevelopment and housing in a way that still bolsters the city’s tax base and, in some cases, creates jobs.

Buchanan said there was no formula directing how much TIF funding is directed to any type of development. She said the creation of a new housing policy could help answer those questions.

“One of the things this opportunity creates is the ability for the city to develop some policy around housing,” Buchanan said. “Over the past five or six years, we’ve had extensive discussion with the MRA board on what MRA’s role is with tax increment financing, especially in the affordable housing world. The board has looked to the city to create policy around this.”

With MRA’s elevated role and Buchanan’s dual appointment heading two city offices, Ward 6 council member Emily Bentley urged MRA to hold its meetings at a time when the City Council could attend.

As it stands, MRA’s Board of Directors typically meets on Wednesdays – at the same time most City Council committee meetings are held. While the committee meetings are televised, MRA’s meetings are not.

“The MRA board meets in a conference room that’s not televised, and it’s during council hours,” said Bentley. “Given the elevated role of the MRA board and the increased responsibility they have – arguably they’re the most important board in the city, given how much money they control – I’m wondering if you could take this message back and ask them to meet in a more transparent place, and at a time when council can attend those meetings.”

Ward 5 council member Julie Armstrong also urged those behind the new department to plan ahead when looking at the city’s future housing needs.

“This housing division is greatly needed,” said Armstrong. “I hope we get to a position where we’re not being reactionary like we are now, trying to fix the gaps where we need more inventory. We’re looking forward and we’re able to project forward and plan forward – it’s something we’ve needed for a long time.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com