Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) One of Missoula's largest income-restricted housing projects remains less than 50% full, though the city's housing officials expect full occupancy this spring.

Sam Oliver, the executive director of the Missoula Housing Authority, told members of the Affordable Housing Resident Oversite Committee that the Villagio – a 200-unit apartment complex off Scott Street – currently has 98 occupants.

While the property opened last year and continues to accept applications, filling the units has had its challenges.

“We have a few challenges here in this current market. We've processed a total of 420 applications so far and of those, 284 are either lost or disqualified applications,” said Oliver. “One of the questions we face frequently is how in the heck can you not be full immediately when we have such a community need.”

The Villagio, developed by Blueline with partial subsidies from the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, represents a significant influx of affordable housing into the local market. Together, the Villagio and Trinity projects provided a decade's worth of affordable housing in a single year.

But filling the Villagio is taking longer than some anticipated. The project is set to serve those earning around 60% of the area median income, which amounts to $36,000 for a single household and $41,500 for a household of two.

The compliance standards are strict, Oliver said, and can be difficult to work with.

“Those are challenging numbers to work with, but also consider that we have three- and even a couple of four-bedroom units. As the units get larger, it gets tougher and tougher to qualify. We've been doing everything we can to get creative,” he said.

The pool of lost or disqualified applications represents those who are either over or under-qualified, Oliver added.

“The problem is that our rent standards are set based on AMI figures that are essentially two years old, so they don't represent the massive inflation that we've experienced,” he said. “That's one of the challenges in the work we do at the housing authority when managing very large state and local funds. We're beholden to compliance issues.”

Despite the challenges, Oliver said he expects the property to fill by April.

“We're working with an out-of-state leasing agent, which means the heroes on my staff at the housing authority are doing a ton of work daily to get this building filled,” he said. “We've seen another 25 units filled in the last two or three weeks.”

While members of the City Council discuss code reform and housing, several are keeping tabs on the progress at the Villagio. City staff said the project has already had an impact in providing housing options, if not directly then by freeing up other properties.

“Between that project and all the different locations with the Trinity project, we've seen a really significant impact already,” said Emily Armstrong, the city's houseless programs manager. “The availability of that housing opened up other housing in our community. I know they're working diligently to continue leasing up the Villagio.”