Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) If money wasn't a barrier, the city's housing partners have identified a number of potential projects that could bring more affordable housing to the market, including 52 units that would require just $3 million in funding.

But money is limited, making what's available in the city's Affordable Housing Trust Fund all the more precious. Over the past two years, it has boosted a number of efforts around Missoula, from the preservation of existing homes to the conversion of a mobile home park into a resident owned community.

“One of the Trust Fund's great design features is that it's flexible and allows for a broad range of activities,” said Emily Harris-Shears, a housing specialist with the city. “It's exciting that we can use these resources in ways we haven't been able to do in the past.”

The city chartered the Affordable Housing Trust Fund in 2020 as part of its housing policy. The resolution that created the fund requires the city to invest a minimum of $100,000 into the fund each year, though other sources can also be added.

That includes an annual investment from the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, private donations, federal funds and the sale of city-owned property, which could generate several million dollars for the fund in the coming year.

“We're anticipating a few sales in the next few months or a year, including the Sleepy Inn site,” said Harris-Shears. “We're excited to see that and redistribute that (funding) into the community.”

What the Funding has Done

Over the last two fiscal years, the Trust Fund has received $1.7 million and all of it has been committed. That includes $136,000 to cover salaries and contracts, $181,000 for consumer housing solutions, and $1.4 million for the preservation and acquisition of affordable housing.

Harris-Sheers said the funding has helped 149 households retain or access housing, while 626 households have accessed home-buyer and financial education. The funding also has helped preserve or acquire 213 affordable homes.

That includes Homeword's work to preserve the Creekside Apartments.

“There's 162 homes there,” said Heather McMilin with Homeword. “It's a project we purchased in 2017 that was at risk of losing the tax credit program and going to market rate. At the end of the day, someone would have bought it and charged maximum rents.”

Rather than letting the property be converted to market-rate housing, Homeword cobbled together enough funding to purchase the property. When it did, it knew the buildings had a long list of deferred maintenance, including dated roofing, poor efficiency and old appliances.

Along with an injection from Low Income Housing Tax Credits, the $138,000 provided from the city's Trust Fund played a role in retaining Creekside as affordable housing.

“This will support a major rehabilitation of the Creekside apartment buildings, improving the living condition, comfort, energy efficiency and ongoing affordability,” said Colleen Kane, a grants administrator with the city. “All of Creekside's residents earn 60% of the area median income or less at official occupancy.”

No Effort Too Small

Other projects also have benefited from the Trust Fund, including the United Way, which has received $106,000 for its housing Housing Solutions Fund. The North Missoula Community Development Corp. also received $340,000 to help purchase the land under two apartment buildings to create a community land trust.

Neighbor Works Montana received $181,000 to help convert a mobile home park into a resident owned community while Habitat for Humanity received $190,000 to support the purchase and placement of two modular homes.

No effort is too small, advocates said.

“This modular program has been an absolutely phenomenal opportunity for us,” said Tor Gudmundsson, program director at Habitat for Humanity. “This project has been in many ways our opportunity to try something new and grow to meet the needs in our community. We were able to build two homes at a price point our partners can afford.”

The nonprofit Habitat for Humanity provides homes for those in need. (MTN News)
The nonprofit Habitat for Humanity provides homes for those in need. (MTN News)

The success of the Trust Fund stands in contrast with the challenges facing the city around homelessness. While the city and its partners look for solutions and the funding to implement them, nearly every discussion ends the same: The best way to end homelessness is to provide housing.

That rings true for the nonprofits working to help the city provide affordable housing, advocates said.

“In the course of three months in 2021, I had four employees evicted from their homes, not because they didn't pay their rent or were bad actors, but because they got priced out of this market,” said Heather Harp, executive director of Missoula's habitat program. “Habitat for Humanity is one of the housing partners that are putting people in homes, and yet I struggle to make sure that even my own employees have housing.”