Under a new roof 

County official worried as city takes reins on housing

Looking to address the city's worsening affordable housing problem, Missoula Mayor John Engen announced plans this month to create a city housing office whose director will craft policy and work with the Missoula Redevelopment Agency to fund new projects. The model, he says, will allow city government to better shape housing development without raising taxes.

"Easy, right?" Cindy Wulfekuhle, director of the county's Department of Grants and Community Programs, wrote in an email to city leaders shortly after Engen's announcement. "It is easy when you have no problem saying, 'to hell with the staff who have done nothing but an exceptional job for the City.'"

Wulfekuhle describes Engen's initiative as a "slap in the face" that undercuts a longstanding collaboration between local governments she says is the envy of other communities. And she cautions that its ripple effects could extend beyond housing, affecting programs from Meals on Wheels to the YWCA's emergency shelter.

For years, Wulfekuhle's department has overseen the cluster of federal grants used to subsidize local housing developments. Much of the money belongs to the city and is awarded to projects inside city limits, but Wulfekuhle says having a joint office to administer the programs allowed officials to assemble the creative funding packages needed to make many projects work.

In taking the reins, Engen plans to pull the city's contribution from the joint grants department (around $350,000 from city and federal coffers for operations) and instead put newly named housing director Eran Fowler Pehan, currently of the Poverello Center, in charge of administering the other $1.7 million in grant money.* Engen says the change gives the city more control over how those public dollars are put to use, in contrast to the current approach he sees as being driven more by grant applicants than city priorities.

"Unless we have a plan and some policy and some leverage, we're just going to continue to respond to people asking us for money," Engen says. "I'm not criticizing that we do that—well, actually, I am criticizing that we do that, because I think we can do it better and differently, and with more impact."

click to enlarge Missoula Mayor John Engen points to Sweetgrass Commons, a 27-unit, low-income rental complex in the Old Sawmill District, as a case study in tackling the city’s affordable housing woes. - PHOTO BY DEREK BROUWER
  • photo by Derek Brouwer
  • Missoula Mayor John Engen points to Sweetgrass Commons, a 27-unit, low-income rental complex in the Old Sawmill District, as a case study in tackling the city’s affordable housing woes.

He points to the redevelopment underway in the Old Sawmill District as both a missed opportunity and an example of how the new model might work. In that case, the MRA purchased the land, then sold it at a reduced price to local nonprofit Homeword Inc. to build 27 units of low- to moderate-income housing as part of a broader $250 million development. Engen praises the neighborhood revival, but says with a clearer vision in place the city could have steered redevelopment to align more closely with Missoula's housing needs.

As the city sharpens its focus on housing, Wulfekuhle says area nonprofits could take a hit. The county typically earmarks a portion of federal housing funds each year for "human services"—around $78,000 this year in the form of small grants to support rental assistance, home food delivery and community gardening programs—but the city may decide to redirect the funds in future years. Engen confirms the city is likely to at least reexamine how the money is spent.

"At some point we need to understand whether we are contributing enough to those programs to make a difference or whether it's a token or how meaningful it is," Engen says.

Directors of two grant recipients contacted by the Indy, Homeword and Missoula Aging Services, were under the impression the "human services" component was mandated by the federal grant.

"I didn't feel it was going to affect us, but now you've got me worried," says Missoula Aging Services CEO Susan Kohler, whose program receives $12,000 to support Meals on Wheels.

Wulfekuhle's concerns, meanwhile, come as a parting note: She announced her retirement this spring after 40 years with the county, frustrated by the mayor's anticipated change. The grants department will lose funding to four-and-a-half positions, which Wulfekuhle says are divided between county and city projects. The office is using a blend of retirements and voluntary reductions to avoid layoffs, in addition to asking county commissioners for around $20,000 to backfill.

But Commissioners Nicole Rowley and Jean Curtiss see Engen's decision to split grants offices as an opportunity to actually strengthen the two governments' relationship by allowing each to focus more directly on its own priorities.

"I think the biggest challenge is, if there are projects where the city and county can work together," Curtiss says, "we just want to make sure it's coordinated."

*This sentence has been updated to include additional information provided after the story went to press.

  • Email
  • Favorite
  • Print
Today | Fri | Sat | Sun | Mon | Tue | Wed
UM Forum

UM Forum @ Missoula City Council Chambers

Thu., Sept. 21, 6 p.m.

All of today's events | Staff Picks

Relevant to News

© 2017 Missoula News/Independent Publishing | Powered by Foundation