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Helena commission approves trust fund for affordable housing

Posted at 8:00 PM, Nov 10, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-10 23:12:23-05

Helena city leaders have taken the next step forward to create a new fund to support affordable housing development.

During a meeting Monday night, the Helena City Commission voted 4-1 in favor of setting up an Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Supporters said it could be a “new tool in the toolbox,” as the city works to address the need for housing in the community.

“We have the opportunity to really utilize some local resources – albeit it may not be a lot to begin with – that can be leveraged for other bigger projects and accessing other resources,” said Commissioner Heather O’Loughlin. “I think this is a really exciting step forward for this community.”

The city commission’s resolution calls for transferring $100,000 from the general fund to the new trust fund. In the future, money from the sale of some city properties will also go into it. Sharon Haugen, the city’s director of community development, said the first of those will be the $300,000 proceeds from last year’s sale of the former city bus depot at 630 N. Last Chance Gulch.

The money in the trust fund could be used in a variety of ways, including paying for the construction or renovation of affordable housing or helping to leverage grants, tax credits and other types of investments.

“That’s what I think is great about this fund: It creates flexibility,” said Michael O’Neil, executive director of the Helena Housing Authority.

O’Neil, along with representatives from several other local organizations that work on housing issues, voiced support for the trust fund during Monday’s meeting. He said it’s been clear for years that there is a need for more affordable housing in Helena – and that is only increasing after the Montana real estate market heated up during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That’s having some very positive consequences, but it’s having negative consequences where it’s driving out the affordability for those who live and work here,” he said.

City leaders have regularly identified affordable housing as one of the issues that has to be addressed in Helena. Staff estimated earlier this year that the median home price in the city rose from $190,000 in 2012 to $269,000 in 2019.

The Helena Housing Authority works with about 1,800 area residents through various programs, including public housing, affordable housing properties and housing choice vouchers. O’Neil said much of their housing stock is decades-old, and that the trust fund could help them bring in more resources to renovate them.

“Any housing property that’s over 60 years old, or in some cases 80 years old, you’re going to have major improvements that need to be done,” he said.

During Monday’s meeting, Commissioner Sean Logan was the only member of the commission to vote against moving forward with the trust fund. He said he wanted to take more time to look at whether it was the best model for Helena, and that he was concerned about committing public money to it during an uncertain financial time.

However, Commissioner Andres Haladay, who has been one of the primary advocates for the trust fund, argued the city’s budget was in good shape, that trusts have worked in many other communities, and that it would be a mistake to push the issue off to a later time.

O’Neil said he understood why people might be concerned about the costs of the fund, but that it was worth making an investment because the negative impacts when people don’t have stable housing affect the community as a whole.

“Not addressing these problems has significant costs,” he said.

Haugen said the city will now put together a committee – including housing advocates, developers and other stakeholders – to work on the policies and procedures for how the trust fund will operate. She expects the first applications for funds early next year.

Missoula approved creating this type of trust fund earlier this year. Helena staff said they had looked at that program while planning for their own.