Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life and the Missoula Housing Authority’s (MHA) near-completion of the low-income Uptown Apartments at the corner of Woody Street and Pine Street have a couple of things in common. Both illustrate how a person, or group of people, can better their community. Both have winter release dates: the film on Jan. 7, 1947, and the Uptown Apartments’ completion on Jan. 2, 2005; tenants are scheduled to move in around Feb. 1.
“Is it too much to have [a person] work and pay and live…in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?” asks Jimmy Stewart’s character George Bailey in the film.
MHA Executive Director Peter Hance doesn’t think so. MHA first started applying for funds to buy and renovate the Uptown Motel into single room occupancy (SRO) units for homeless individuals back in 2002.
“It’s permanent housing,” he says. “It’s not a shelter. It’s not temporary housing.” He references Ma Bailey’s Boarding House from the 1947 film and says, “That’s what this is more like. Boarding houses used to be the places where single people who worked in different jobs used to go to live. They lived from place to place…and they reached a point in their lives when they needed permanent living, and all they wanted was basically a single room, and that’s what this is becoming.”
The Uptown Apartments, located across from the Missoula County Courthouse and City Hall, will be the first state-funded SRO in Montana, says Hance. “There are lots of private ones around, but they’re just known as the old hotel that has people living in them,” he says.
In 2000 the At-Risk Housing Coalition (ARHC), an umbrella group of about 30 human-services agencies formed in 1992, identified the need for single-room occupancy housing in Missoula. To address that need, MHA bought the Uptown Motel in 2002 with a portion of the $500,000 granted from the state of Montana’s Board of Housing’s HOME funds. Working with Missoula-based MacArthur, Means & Wells Architects and Garden City Builders, MHA is renovating the building with about $600,000 from MHA’s Development Fund (created in 2001 when MHA sold 45 public housing units in Missoula and Lolo). The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Continuum of Care Program awarded MHA another $577,000 as a 10-year allotment to cover the building’s management and maintenance expenses; the total cost of the project is about $1.2 million, Hance says.
The 14 efficiency apartments will all have private baths and limited cooking facilities. Rent is $385 per month; an individual contributes 30 percent of his gross monthly income toward that cost, and the rest is paid out of the Continuum of Care Program grant. If an individual has no income, he or she does not pay rent.
“It’s kind of the perfect scenario for someone who’s single, low-income, but is not on a disability track,” says Poverello Center Client Services Coordinator John Lilburn, a WORD employee who contracts with the Pov. “Social service nets have become so narrow in their programs, and you have to fit the criteria just exactly a lot of times to get in there, so if you don’t fit those exact categories and yet you’re still in need, it’s a hard way to go,” Lilburn says.
Hance sees the Uptown Apartments as filling the niche for low-income people who don’t fit other social-service categories. While MHA is finalizing application criteria, including income guidelines and a police background check (a problem in an individual’s background will not automatically disqualify an applicant, says Hance), “the only really critical issue in this one is they have to be homeless, and being homeless is a very specific definition under HUD standards,” he says.
Someone who is living with another person, for example, does not qualify as homeless. Individuals living in a transitional housing facility, a shelter, a space not designated for human habitation, an institution (for more than 30 days, with a release scheduled within seven days) or who are to be evicted from a residence within a week with no resources to find subsequent housing are eligible to apply. Applications were distributed to the Poverello Center, Salvation Army, Partnership Health Care and Missoula County Health Department on Nov. 15; MHA will accept applications beginning Dec. 1.
Poverello Center Executive Director Joe Bischof says his staff hasn’t been pushing the applications on Pov patrons too much “because, number one, we don’t know all the parameters yet for the screening process, and number two, I hate to get people’s hopes up for a specific date when something is supposed to open.” He says delays can happen on any construction project, and “a lot of folks here have been through hard times in their lives or been disappointed at times in their lives, and I certainly don’t have any desire to add to that.”
He adds that once the building is occupied, the Poverello hopes to work with MHA on oversight of the project, extending the Pov’s laundry, food, mail, nursing and client services to the Uptown residents just one block away. “That way we’re getting them out and interfacing with a lot of people here and interfacing with their case managers so we make sure people don’t just go into that building and [be] forgotten,” he says.
Hance says the project has taken about a year longer than initially planned. Because the Uptown Apartments is one of the first SROs being administered out of HUD’s Rocky Mountain regional headquarters in Denver, he says, “there were a lot of problems with paperwork coming from Washington [D.C.].” Routine processes such as an environmental review of the site (a requirement for any project using HUD funds) also took several months.
In the coming year, MHA has plans for other affordable housing projects, including what Hance calls “the big kahuna,” a mixed-income community to be built on the Russell Street Intermountain Lumber site that MHA purchased for $3 million last year. “Right now the Denver regional [HUD] office considers us and, I think, Boulder, Colorado, the two most aggressive housing authorities in the entire [Rocky Mountain] region,” Hance says. “We have such huge demands, such huge needs, and we are searching for ways to meet them.”