A decades-old dream to create an affordable housing project in Stevensville finally came true last week with the state’s decision to award $3.6 million in federal housing tax credits to build 16 homes in the community.
The Nicole Court project proposes to build three two-bedroom four-plexes and two two-plexes on three acres just west of Ace Hardware just off the Eastside Highway.
The project is sponsored by the District XI Human Resource Council.
The council’s director, Jim Morton, said the project will focus on providing housing for the elderly, people with special needs and victims of domestic or sexual abuse.
The land was originally purchased by the Missoula Housing Authority in 1997 with the hope of creating an affordable housing project back then, said the authority’s executive director, Lori Davidson. A project was allocated tax credits, but the developer ran into issues obtaining the necessary permitting and water supply from the town of Stevensville in about 2005.
“We had to return the tax credits and could not continue with that project,” Davidson said. “It was disappointing. We have owned that land ever since and have tried to develop in several different ways, but it didn’t work out.”
After the Missoula Housing Authority decided to focus its efforts inside a 10-mile radius of Missoula, Davidson said the decision was made to donate the land to the Human Resource Council with the hope that it could successfully develop an affordable housing project on the property.
That donation played a role in helping the Stevensville project rise to the top in the very competitive process used in determining where the federal tax credits would be awarded this year.
“We are very thankful that Jim and the Human Resource Council were willing to take up the banner there and continue to apply until the board saw that the project was worthy,” Davidson said.
This year, the Montana Board of Housing had 18 applications for affordable housing projects hoping to obtain federal housing tax credits. Six were selected to receive the $31.6 million available to preserve or build new affordable homes in the state.
The federal housing tax credits allow developers to borrow less money for construction and pass those savings along to families and individuals through lower rent. Housing tax credits are the primary source of funding for affordable housing development in the nation.
Developers submitted housing tax credit applications requesting financial support to build or rehabilitate homes in seven Montana communities. The Montana Board of Housing evaluates those applications and decides which communities will receive the credits.
“The board is required to make tough decisions on which projects will receive tax credits, as the need is greater than the dollars available,” said Board Chairman Patrick Melby. “Each project in front of the board is worthy of receiving housing credits.”
Morton said Stevensville is fortunate that it was selected.
“Competition for these tax credits is fierce,” Morton said. “We’ve been trying to get something in Stevensville for the last eight years. We’ve applied to the Montana Board of Housing five times.”
Beyond the donation of the land from the Missoula Housing Authority, the Human Resource Council was also awarded a $575,000 grant from the Federal Homes Loan Bank of Des Moines. The Federal Homes Loan Bank was created in 1932 under President Herbert Hoover as a means to lower the cost of homeownership.
“We were very fortunate to have that donation of land that’s valued at $100,000 and to receive the federal grant,” Morton said. “The donation helped to push the project to the top of the list.”
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Supporters of Abuse Free Environments (SAFE) director Stacey Umhey said the organization that serves survivors of domestic and sexual violence and their children is “very excited” about the Stevensville affordable housing project.
“We work with people every single day who are really in need of housing,” Umhey said. “Our shelter is often full, and it’s always a challenge finding places to house people off-site. We’re running out of options.”
Umhey said it was hard listening in on the Board of Housing meeting last Monday.
“It was kind of heartbreaking,” she said. “There were a number of communities from all across the state whose project didn’t get tax credits. There are just not a lot of resources out there for affordable housing in rural areas, and the need is huge.”
Ravalli Head Start director John Filz also testified in support of the project.
Currently, about a sixth of the 170 children the program serves in Ravalli County live in the Stevensville area. About 55% of the families on the program’s waitlist lives in Stevensville. With additional funding, Filz said the program could easily double the number of children and families it serves in that community.
Currently, about 16% of the children Head Start works with in Stevensville meet the definition of being homeless.
“Research in adverse childhood experiences show long-term harmful effects on very young children who are subjected to homelessness and housing insecurity,” Filz testified. “Safe, secure housing is critically important for everyone, but perhaps most important for our children.”
Filz said there is very little building of affordable housing currently occurring in Stevensville that targets people on very low and fixed incomes, people with disabilities and victims of domestic abuse.
Stevensville Mayor Brandon Dewey said affordable housing, including entry-level workforce and family housing, was identified as a need in the community's growth policy 2016 update.
“The housing credit helps our community successfully live into the goals that it set for itself,” Dewey said. “Housing is a necessity to creating diverse, equitable neighborhoods and is a major contributor to a well-functioning community. The Town of Stevensville recognizes that to drive economic and social benefits for the town and its residents, quality and affordable housing is essential.”
Morton said affordable housing is an issue throughout Ravalli County.
“The rental vacancy rate is very low,” Morton said. “Even if you have a good-paying job, it’s difficult to find rental units. And rents are expensive. Outside the larger population centers in the state, we’re not seeing a lot of investment in housing.”
The recently awarded tax credits did include a project that will upgrade apartments at two Ravalli County properties — one with 12 units in Darby and the other with 30 units in Hamilton, Morton said.
It’s challenging finding new locations for affordable housing projects in Ravalli County due to the lack of land with municipal water and sewer.
“When you start looking for land in those incorporated areas, it’s hard to find,” Morton said. “Right now, we have a waiting list of people looking for affordable housing in the county.”
Morton said the Stevensville project needs to be completed by the end of 2020.