Rent Asunder 

Missoula Housing Authority looks to relocate 45 families

In an effort to improve efficiency and better serve Missoula’s low- and moderate-income housing needs, the Missoula Housing Authority (MHA) is drafting a plan to sell 45 of its single-family homes occupied by low-income families and replace them with 80-86 newly constructed housing units throughout the city. The plan, which will require federal approval by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), would represent the largest single reallocation of MHA assets in its 21-year history.

In October, the MHA’s board of commissioners sent letters to 45 families informing them that their MHA homes were on a list of properties that are not cost-efficient and are being considered for sale. The families were told that “nothing will happen quickly,” since public hearings and appraisals are required first, and the earliest they would be relocated would be June 2000.

“One of the things we’re looking at is how can we best serve our community, especially with what we know to be a high demand for affordable housing,” says MHA Chief Executive Officer Ed Mayer. “We want to be able to provide a product that meets the needs of the community. What we’re finding is that the product we provide doesn’t meet that demand.”

About four years ago, the MHA began to notice a shift in the needs of families on its public housing waiting list, from three or four bedrooms to one and two bedrooms. Today, of the 320 families on the MHA’s waiting list, 288 are waiting for one- or two-bedroom units, while only 32 families are waiting for three- to five-bedroom houses.

According to Mayer, selling off these homes will allow the MHA to leverage its assets and add 41 additional housing units to the MHA’s current housing stock of 210 units at no cost to the taxpayer.

The shift in MHA’s affordable housing demands, explains Mayer, reflects Missoula’s changing economic and demographic landscape. An MHA housing report released earlier this year concluded that larger, low-income families have tremendous difficulty making ends meet in Missoula’s low-wage, high-rent economy.

Moreover, since Missoula has become the medical and health care hub for western Montana, the number of elderly and disabled individuals needing housing assistance has climbed sharply, increasing the demand for affordable, one- or two-bedroom units.

Many of MHA’s homes slated for possible sale were built in the 1970s and 1980s, when Missoula experienced an influx of refugees with large families, such as the Hmong and Belorussian communities. Back then, the federal government was willing to pay for single-family homes, especially in Missoula, where a depressed housing market made those homes affordable. Today, says Mayer, HUD will not fund the construction of single-family homes.

According to Sharon O’Hare, MHA special projects coordinator, the MHA is legally required to give residents ample notice that they will be relocated, as well as the opportunity to comment on the project. Residents may opt for relocation within Missoula’s public housing system, get federal rent assistance or, if they qualify, join MHA’s home-ownership program.

“It’s turning out that for a number of residents, we’ll almost be doing a personal relocation plan based on their needs and the needs of the community,” says O’Hare. For example, one family has a disabled child with special schooling needs. Another woman has a protection dog that she is concerned will not be welcome in her new housing.

Mayer emphasizes that the MHA will work with all the residents to make the best of what will undoubtedly be a stressful and challenging move.

“We’re trying to figure out a way to make this transition work for the community, the Missoula Housing Authority and the residents, so that little harm is done,” says Mayer.

Still, at least one resident fears the harm that will befall her and her home-based business. Three months ago, Mary Monroe moved into an MHA home in the lower Rattlesnake and opened Nanny Goat’s Kids, a certified day care center serving seven families and 10 children. Today, Monroe says that if she’s forced to move out of her home, the MHA will be violating its own mission of fostering self-sufficiency among its residents.

“When I went into public housing, it was mandatory for me to state what my objectives and goals were. And at that time, I said I wanted to become a certified child care provider and eventually get into a house. That took me two years,” says Monroe.

Monroe is not only concerned about the future of her business and giving up a home her children love, but also fears that a move within the next two years will compromise the terms of a federal grant she received to install a protective fence for the children.

Mayer says that Monroe is the only resident he knows of who may be displaced from a home-based business. And while he can’t make any promises about if or when her house will be sold, he is willing to work with her to find suitable alternatives.

“Anytime we have residents actively working on their own behalf, I consider it a success,” says Mayer. “The key is that we want to channel Mary’s energies into helping to move this forward together.”

“I feel like they’re willing to work with me, but I also feel like we need to pull people together and make them held accountable,” says Monroe. “As long as they walk their talk. After all, we’re at their mercy.”

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