-Mari Hall reporting for the Missoula Current
MISSOULA – Growing old shouldn’t get harder than it already is, but that’s what is happening to Missoula seniors who are struggling to find an affordable home, says Susan Kohler, CEO of Missoula Aging Services.
“We don’t have a housing stock that makes it easy for people to downsize or when they’re ready to get into more of an environment like a housing complex, there just aren’t a lot of options within the city,” said Kohler, who supports a controversial housing project.
The Skyview senior apartments would cater to residents age 55 and older. Housing Solutions LLC wants to build the 39-unit complex at 2400 Ninth St. W., in the Franklin to the Fort neighborhood.
Now, though, the affordable units have encountered resistance, with a few Missoula City Council members and neighbors insisting the one-acre field isn’t the right place for such a dense development. A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for July 15.
Housing Solutions is seeking federal housing tax credits from the Montana Board of Housing, so must hold a public hearing and submit the hearing testimony as part of the application.
The tax credit is intended to lower construction costs so the developer can then provide housing at lower rents for low-income residents. Without the credit, Skyview cannot be built.
But City Council member Michelle Cares represents the Franklin to the Fort area and says many residents are opposed to the project. The neighborhood has experienced significant change in recent years, Cares said, and many residents believe the proposed three-story building wouldn’t mesh with the neighborhood’s character.
The existing infrastructure doesn’t support the apartment complex either, she said, with many nearby streets lacking sidewalks or crosswalks for safe passage to public transit or other amenities.
“In the 2035 Growth Policy, the Franklin to the Fort neighborhood is one of the very most densely zoned areas in the whole city,” Cares said. “People are building in front yards that didn’t used to have a building at all or they’re building eight-plexes where there used to be a single unit. It’s exhausting.”
If the project is approved for tax credits by the Board of Housing, the lot must be rezoned to accommodate the number of units proposed. Now, the area is zoned for eight units per acre, not 39.
“I just don’t know if this is the right place for this building,” Cares said. “And I feel strongly enough to vote with the neighborhood about it.”
Malcolm Lowe is a neighbor and has led opposition to the project. Lowe said he’s lived in the neighborhood since 1996, while others have lived there for more than 30 years.
Lowe likes that there aren’t many rentals in the area and that many residents are single-family homeowners.
“We have no three-story buildings in this neighborhood now, and to get the density they’re proposing, they would have to go up,” Lowe said. “Our viewshed would be impacted and certainly traffic would be impacted.”
The city’s growth policy calls for inward growth for the next 20 years, but infrastructure in Franklin to the Fort area cannot support that growth, said Lowe, who fears steep assessments for neighborhood residents.
“This affects the quality of life in Missoula. If you can’t get around in this town because you’re basically overburdening the infrastructure,” Lowe said. “It’s a quality of life issue.”
Last year, Housing Solutions attempted to use land that once was the Skyview Trailer Park in Missoula’s Westside neighborhood. Developers sought the same low-income tax credits through the Board of Housing but ultimately fell short of passing by one vote.
The Westside property was then no longer available.
Eran Pehan, director of Missoula’s Office of Housing and Community Development, explained that Housing Solutions is seeking a 9% housing tax credit, “which provides for the greatest amount of private equity but which is also the most difficult to get because of intense competition for these credits at the state level.”
If approved by the Board of Housing, investors receive annual tax credits equal to 9% of the eligible basis of a rental development project, Pehan said.
And developments that occur in a qualified low-income census tract – of which Missoula has four, including Franklin to the Fort – receive a 30% boost in the equity that can be included in the project.
(A qualified census tract is one in which 50% of the households have incomes below 60% of the area’s median income, or which has a poverty rate of 25% or more.)
Construction of low-income housing, while it can be done in other parts of the city, is rarely affordable without the subsidy, according to Pehan.
“It is difficult to develop outside of census tracts because oftentimes, low-income housing tax credit developers don’t get enough equity from the tax credit investment to make a project possible,” she said in an interview. “It’s most beneficial typically for a developer, in the sense of making a project feasible, when it happens in a qualified census tract.”
The tax credits would fund approximately 80% of the $6.8 million Skyview project.
Because of these restrictions, Alex Burkhalter with Housing Solutions has been searching for buildable land in census-tract neighborhoods. The Franklin to the Fort area seemed like the next best spot after he lost the Westside property, meeting all the criteria for affordable housing.
The number of Missoula seniors age 65 and over is expected to increase by 52% from 2017 to 2023, according to the city’s recently adopted housing policy.
City Council member John DiBari voted with Cares against next Monday’s public hearing and believes that while affordable senior housing is needed in Missoula, the proposed location isn’t the right one.
“I loved the previous project at the Skyview mobile home park and I’m totally for affordable senior housing in Missoula,” DiBari said. “What strikes me as odd, is why do we need it at this location?”
A proposal to build four duplexes on land owned by Mountain View Chapel was previously brought before the City Council, but the housing project soon followed after, staking its claim on the Ninth Street property.
DiBari agreed that infrastructure in the area wouldn’t support the senior housing facility, and wants to see affordable housing projects evenly distributed across the city.
“You can’t equitably distribute them if there are only four places that they can go,” DiBari said. “Well, that just doesn’t really work for me. We need to figure out a way where these things can be distributed throughout the community.”
DiBari said that establishing partnerships between the city of Missoula and local neighborhoods is what’s needed to make these projects work.
“If Alex wants to do a project like this, and I’m totally in support of it, we just need to work together to find the right spot to put it,” DiBari said. “The city has land available at its disposal. There’s the (Montana Rail Link) park land, the city should be acquiring some other land if they haven’t already done so, that a use like this would be suitable. That’s the kind of partnership we need, not just sort of dropping this on us and the neighborhood out of the blue.”
Burkhalter said that since the last project was rejected, Housing Solutions has been looking for other land options. The acreage on Ninth Street is designated for dense development on the newly updated land use map, Burkhalter said.
In the 15 years that Burkhalter has worked on affordable housing projects in Missoula and elsewhere, he’s never had a city partner with Housing Solutions where land is donated or contributed to a project.
“We turned over every rock we could, and weren’t able to come up with something until the middle of March when we came across the property on Ninth Street,” Burkhalter said. “It’s size was correct, it’s location was good, proximity to transit was good.”
In the neighborhood, Lowe is also concerned about the development being exempt from paying property taxes, and Pehan said that affordable housing developments can apply for a property tax exemption through the Department of Revenue.
Burkhalter plans to apply for that exemption, saying it is one of the only tools that developers can leverage to keep a project affordable.
“In Montana, the real property tax exemption is the only hard dollars that the state puts into affordable housing,” he said. “So it’s a very important tool to get these type of projects done. All other sources are federal.”
While the project has met some resistance and backlash, the need for affordable senior housing is still great.
Kohler with Missoula Aging Services said she supported the project last year and even spoke in favor of it at the Montana Board of Housing. From July 2018 to June 2019, about 135 calls have expressed a need for subsidized housing or Section 8 housing to Missoula Aging Services.
The Skyview affordable senior housing project will have one- and two-bedroom apartments ranging from $525 to $815 per month, which includes utilities. The complex will have amenities like a dishwasher, a washer and dryer in unit, air conditioning, secure entry and elevators.
Aspen Place Apartments is another senior-centered affordable housing complex built by Housing Solutions on Great Northern Avenue. Burkhalter said it’s been successful and currently has a long waiting list.
“I really believe if this project moves through the council and the neighbors, it’ll be something that they can be proud of,” Burkhalter said.
A market study done for the project’s application last year found that senior housing is a growing need, year after year. A project like this needs to be done, and soon, Burkhalter said.
“It showed a need for 250 new units for 55 and older at the prices we’re offering, needed today, and an additional 40 units per year needed each year thereafter,” Burkhalter said. “Every year that goes by that something like this isn’t done, we’re falling further and further behind the curve.”