“Bail out the People” has been a common message on cardboard signs in Occupy camps all over the country. Signs with similar sentiments were hoisted at Tea Party rallies. Anger over using billions of taxpayer dollars to bail out Wall Street is one of the threads that tie the two movements together, despite other political differences.

This came to mind amid the recent uproar over a proposal heading to Missoula City Council that would “bail out” the North Missoula Community Development Corp., which can’t pay the debt from its three-year-old, $2.7 million affordable housing development, called Burns Street Commons, on the Westside.

Ten of the 17 Burns Street units remain vacant for a variety of reasons, largely resulting from the recession. Councilman Bob Jaffe wants to convert the $400,000 loan the city gave NMCDC into a grant. For that, Jaffe, a former NMCDC board member, is being vilified as “Bailout Bob.”

We sympathize with those who say Missoula’s elected officials are too eager to fork over taxpayer money to save floundering private projects. The Burns Street proposal follows Missoula’s recent $2 million bailout of the baseball stadium. And the city might end up giving away valuable land within the Riverfront Triangle to a developer trying to build a hotel. You can’t blame citizens for criticizing the emerging pattern. But perhaps relieving NMCDC is the sort of bailout Missoula should get behind.

Consider what this “bailout” actually entails. It’s taking federal money earmarked for social service projects and applying it to a social service project as a grant instead of a loan.

“It’s not raising taxes so we can bail out an organization or any private individual,” Jaffe says. “What we’re doing is providing a greater subsidy for affordable housing stock.”

Jaffe acknowledges the cost: not having the money to support another deserving project down the road.

Yet that greater subsidy will expand the market of eligible buyers, which will improve the chances that the 10 vacant Burns Street Commons units will be occupied by Missoulians in need of housing. It may also save NMCDC, an organization that has long worked to revitalize the Northside and Westside.

This “bailout” may be undesirable, but it’s not unreasonable.

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