Won't back down 

How Bob Oaks helped the Northside live again

Page 4 of 4

Across Broadway, on the Northside, Oaks shows me the second NMCDC housing development, Clark Fork Commons. The mint green condos sit along the Clark Fork River. We walk along the sidewalk past porch nooks full of flower boxes and over a little bridge that crosses a small ditch that runs through the property. Condos like Clark Fork Commons haven't been an easy sell for NMDCD because when people buy a first home in Missoula, they're often looking for a detached structure. "The houses at Whittier Court, when they come up for sale, sell quicker than here," says Oaks. "That's because those fit people's concept of what home ownership should be."

Another hurdle is that housing is still relatively expensive, compared to what it was in the early 1990s, and working-class wages haven't really changed. And NMCDC's housing commons were both built right when the real estate bubble burst. "We were making headway toward getting regular dedicated support for the community land trust," says Oaks. "And that all died. It was like, 'Oh, we've made a big mistake concentrating on homeownership, what we really need is more rentals.' Well, we do need those, but unless you build safeguards so that rentals—or a percentage of them—are permanently affordable, you're not going to solve the problem. Everything flies to market rate."

We drive to a deserted-looking industrial space on Scott Street where there's a small manicured field and another lot full of untamed grasses and weeds. This was White Pine Sash, the former window and door manufacturing facility that closed on Christmas Eve in 1996 and left a superfund site behind in a residential neighborhood. Oaks says the DEQ promised a cleanup in 1999, then 2001, but not much has happened yet. The manicured lot is a playing field, but the land around it—some of it owned by the city—still needs to be cleaned up. Oaks has been pushing for it to be cleaned to residential standards. Housing development efforts have come and gone, often because the city health department has insisted that the whole area be cleaned before any development occurs, and most developers didn't wait around for that to happen. Now, it's being considered for a commercial-grade clean up, which would preclude new housing.

click to enlarge Whittier Court - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

The work in the neighborhood isn't over. It never is. But Oaks says perceptions have evolved: "I don't think we hear people say, 'Oh no, I would never live on the Northside' anymore. There's a positive change. All of a sudden people started craning their necks, saying, 'Oh, there's community happening there. How do we do the same kind of thing in our neighborhood?'"



The Missoula dad

Jerry Petasek was one of the first community land trust homeowners. He and his wife, Leslie Gallant, bought a house at Whittier Court in 2003. "A lot of stuff was out of our price range and what was in our price range was ridiculously run-down," Petasek says. "I realized how fortunate we were to get that home; it changed our lives. I loved the idea of doing that for other people."

Alison Handler, the NMCDC land stewardship coordinator who brought the idea of land trusts to Oaks, was set to move to Portland, Ore., and she introduced Petasek to Oaks in the guise of getting him a job. Petasek had no experience with land trusts other than his experience with buying a house at Whittier Court, but Oaks hired him. On the first day, he handed Petasek the Northside-Westside Neighborhood Plan and a stack of information on community land trusts and told him to start reading.

The first several weeks, Oaks tested him.

"He would say, 'Okay. You're at the bar, on the stool and a guy sits down and asks you what you do for a living. How do you explain it?'" Petasek says. "And then he'd say, 'Okay, you're at a conference in front of 1,000 people who are housing professionals and you have to explain what a community land trust is. How do you explain it?'"

Petasek also wrote emails for Oaks, who would correct them. "It could be really annoying," Petasek says, laughing, "but it's made me a better writer. That's important to him. And he's a phenomenal writer. The number-one reason we get as many grants as we do is because of Bob."

At the Kettlehouse, Oaks listens to young activists, giving some of them the information they need and the opportunity to make things happen. "He's all about empowering other people, not taking every cause and championing it himself," Petasek says.

When I call local activist Molly Moody to talk about Oaks, she refers to him as her "Missoula Dad." Moody, who went on to direct the Montana Organizing Project, was one of the first young activists to work with Oaks as a community organizer, on neighborhood projects including low-income housing and an initiative that helped prevent lice at Lowell School. "Anything that came through the door she was immediately on top of it," says Petasek. "That's the kind of stuff Bob allows us to do."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

Hermina Harold, another community organizer under Oaks's tutelage, has been working on getting the Burns Street Community Kitchen at Burns Street Square up and running. The kitchen will be open to people who want to prepare food and there will be a café, the Burns St. Bistro. An afternoon program to serve free meals to low-income kids was launched last week in partnership with the Missoula Food Bank and the Boys and Girls Club. It all happened because Oaks listened to Harold and others.

On the NMCDC website, Oaks talks candidly about the challenge in building healthy neighborhoods. It takes a holistic view, he says. "Sadly," he writes, "we sometimes even find it difficult to explain our perspective to the organizations whose business it is to fund and promote the good work of community building. They don't usually say so, but we fear they may see us as being 'all over the board.'"

Oaks has a new project these days, too—Trust Montana, which is trying to take the community land-trust model statewide. The idea is to build partnerships between sustainable agriculture advocates, real estate developers, and historic and wildlife preservationists to keep land in perpetuity that can include affordable housing and farmland. It's the first time Oaks is really looking beyond individual neighborhoods.

And the old struggles continue. Comment threads on community forums have more than once accused Oaks of being a gentrifier, of pushing out the poor, of wasting money. One such comment irked him enough that he had Petasek track down the commenter through the IP address and Oaks sent him a postcard—just to let him know that you can be critical, Oaks says, but you can't be anonymous.

The gentrifying criticism has two sides. Oaks is committed to building low-income housing and healthy neighborhoods, but once you start improving a neighborhood, everyone else wants in. That's why every neighborhood needs a plan, he says, and the city's growth plan should be the sum of them. That's an uphill battle.

"There've been many times when I was like, 'This isn't worth it.' And then Bob will step in and say, 'No, it is worth it,'" Petasek says. "Sometimes I'll have ideas for how to do things that really aren't necessarily mission-driven, and Bob's always kind of there to say, 'No, we're not gonna do that, even though that might be an easy way out. We have to come back to what the neighborhood needs. It's why we're here.'"

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