County commissioners move forward with land donation for low-income housing

Heather McMilin, the housing development director for Homeword, spoke before the Missoula Board of County Commissioners.

After holding a final public hearing Thursday in the Sophie Moise Room at the Missoula County Courthouse annex, the Missoula Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously to approve a “resolution of intent” to grant 4-acres of county land, near the County Detention Center at 2340 Mullan Road, for the development of a low-income and supportive housing project known as Trinity Apartments. The resolution will be voted on for final approval at their September 17 administrative meeting.

The team of developers include the Missoula Housing Authority, BlueLine Development and Homeword, a Missoula-based nonprofit dedicated to providing safe, healthy, affordable housing for those in need. No taxpayer funds will be used for the development and operation of the facility.

Only two people spoke during the public hearing, and both were in support of the project.

“This would allow something beautiful to happen,” said Heidi West, who represents Ward 1 on the Missoula City Council and is also a community organizer for the North-Missoula Community Development Corporation, an advocacy organization that includes a land stewardship program to preserve and develop affordable housing.

West talked about when residents of the Skyview Trailer Park in Missoula were evicted a few years ago, and how difficult it was for them to find new homes. “It’s hard to find housing in Missoula that is affordable and safe,” she said. “This will help provide housing for those who, like the people evicted from Skyview, need to find housing.”

“This donation is very important to us, and the community,” said Heather McMilin, the housing development director for Homeword.

According to the resolution, Trinity Apartments will be a combination of low-income and supportive housing options, including 30 homes for individuals and families earning below 30-percent of area median income and 100 homes for those earning below 70-percent of area median income. Thirty of those 100 homes will be available for those experiencing “chronic homelessness” and will include rental assistance. In addition, there will be an onsite “navigation center” operating 24-hours a day, 7-days a week to provide support for residents.

The navigation center will also assist people re-entering the area’s community from the criminal justice system, and will support law enforcement, local hospitals and emergency responders answering calls related to homelessness and addiction. Services will include harm reduction, health care and behavioral and mental health evaluation and support.

Although no one spoke against the resolution at Thursday’s hearing, several people expressed opposition and concerns at another public hearing held August 22, including former County Commissioner Jean Curtiss. She also wrote an OpEd for the Missoula Current that was published on August 29.

“The county has been strategic in reserving that land for potential, unknown county needs in the future,” she wrote. “While the use proposed sounds like it would be beneficial to the community, the details are vague about the navigation center and some important community stakeholders were left out of the planning. This allows the city to meet some housing goals, but at the presentation on August 22, there was no mention of a city financial contribution to the project, so the investment seems one sided.  I am also concerned about the mix of housing types next to each other. One section will require intensive case management of a high-risk population, the other could have families and children. I wouldn’t want to live there and worry about whether my neighbors were a risk to my kids. This piece of land has been coveted by many, but the taxpayers bought it for public use and it should continue to be reserved. Land is the biggest driver of the cost of projects, which is why it benefits the proposed project, but also why it makes sense to keep it.”

The donation does come with stipulations: Trinity Apartments will be required to provide annual documentation and certifications that the land is being used for intended purposes, and that it complies with all related federal and state regulations and standards. Otherwise, the land will be returned to the county under a “reversionary clause” included in the grant.

The four acres are a currently undeveloped portion of 21.58 acres acquired by the county in 1996, using money raised from $17 million worth of General Obligation Bonds, approved by county voters, for the purpose of building the County Detention Center. The bonds and debt service have been paid in full and are no longer on the tax roll.

According to the resolution passed on Thursday, the project will help achieve the goals outlined in “Reaching Home: Missoula’s 10-year Plan to End Homelessness and the Jail Diversion Master Plan,” both of which call for the development of “permanent, supportive housing” and “point to the effectiveness of these models in providing better outcomes for individuals and the community.”