By Martin Kidston

Missoula Mayor John Engen unveiled the makings of a housing policy on Thursday, saying it was time for the city to create a meaningful plan to provide affordable housing and make progress on ending homelessness.

Engen called his plan revenue neutral, saying it would not cost the city any additional funding.

“For the past decade or so, I've been talking about housing in our community – affordable housing, safe and decent housing, and housing for everyone,” Engen said. “We've talked about it and we've placed emphasis on the notion, but we've largely relied on our nonprofit partners in the community to figure it out.”

Engen said the current approach has led to the creation of smaller projects across the city – projects that have done little to meet the city's growing need for safe and affordable housing. The process needs a cohesive vision and must move faster, he said.

“I've become increasingly frustrated that we don't have a housing policy here in the city of Missoula,” Engen said. “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.”

As presented, Eran Fowler Pehan, executive director of the Poverello Center, would serve as director of the city's new housing office. Engen lauded Pehan for working through the challenges of building the new homeless shelter.

Pehan, who will start this July, will establish the new housing office and bring several grant programs into the municipal operation. Currently, the city contracts with Missoula County to manager the grants.

Pehan would also take over the city's 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness, Engen said.

“Were doing a lot triage around that because we don't have the resources we need to be intentional about taking some action steps,” Engen said. “I'd like (Pehan) to work on a housing policy for the city of Missoula, so we understand both the need and our ability to meet that need.”

The mayor's plan would also see Ellen Buchanan serve as the deputy chief administrative officer of newly created office of "redevelopment, housing and economic development." In the position, Engen said, she would continue to serve as the director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency.

“She's very interested in housing policy and getting housing on the ground,” Engen said. “She has the ability to connect the dots. Using the existing grant programs we employ today around the community, and having a close working relationship with MRA and (tax increment financing), means we can make some dramatic change and get a lot of bang for our buck.”

Engen said Buchanan has agreed to take the position and would receive a pay increase, which has not yet been negotiated. He said the additional funding would not come from MRA's budget, but rather, it would be covered by reallocating funding now used to manage the grants program.

Engen plans to include the housing policy in this year's executive budget.

“Today we invest directly from the General Fund to support on the order of $150,000 to $160,000 in grants administration,” the mayor said. “Grants themselves provide another $150,000 or so in administrative revenue.

“All in, we've got $300,000 to work with,” Engen added. “We're sure we can operate this program on those kinds of revenue. So for the city, it's largely revenue neutral.”