Just when things couldn’t become much worse for the Missoula Housing Authority (MHA), they did. On April 4, the state Board of Housing chose not to grant MHA the lynchpin funding it had sought to advance its Market Square project at the old Intermountain Lumber site. Without the $5.4 million MHA requested, the fate of 72 affordable housing units scheduled to break ground this summer is increasingly uncertain, and the hundreds of people waiting on MHA’s housing list must wait that much longer.
This disappointment comes on the heels of simmering scrutiny raised by MHA commissioners and city officials over MHA doings under the direction of Executive Director Peter Hance. At issue, in part, is Hance’s extracurricular support for a Lewistown development that competed successfully against MHA for the same public dollars, as well as the big bucks MHA continues to dedicate to legal fees—last year’s tally is more than $80,000.
That’s already trouble enough for the MHA, which makes us wonder why it would eagerly endeavor to invite more. Nevertheless, MHA appears poised to do so following a hastily called April 9 meeting where Hance sought to convince MHA commissioners to sue the state Board of Housing for not funding Market Square. A straw vote found four of the seven commissioners favored the litigation, though official action on the issue will occur April 18, at a 5:30 p.m. meeting at MHA’s office.
This talk of litigation comes despite MHA’s preliminary efforts to pursue an administrative appeal by working with the Board of Housing, plus the fact that explicit rules give the Board power to approve or deny project funding as it sees fit.
MHA Commissioner James Hoffmann is concerned this reflexive tendency toward legal action sends the wrong message, particularly since MHA will certainly return to the Board for future funding requests. He isn’t the only one. As Mayor John Engen urges, “the cooperative spirit that brings affordable housing to this community is what we need to encourage, and litigation typically builds walls; it doesn’t tear them down.”
The gathering storm over the MHA and its already besieged public image are two more reasons why pursuing avoidable litigation doesn’t add up. But there are hundreds more: 1,375 to be specific. That’s how many people are on the waiting list for MHA housing. And every avoidable legal fee, every unnecessary hour of MHA staff time, that goes toward litigation means fewer resources for the 1,375 people who need them. The MHA is already in a hole, and frantically digging deeper seems unlikely to improve the situation for anyone.