Tour of the Guardian Apartments

Local Assistant Manager for Human Resources Development Council Breana Thomas, left, and Montana Department of Commerce Director Pam Haxby-Cote, right, tour a remodel project at the Guardian Apartments in downtown Helena in this file photo from 2017. 

Helena's city government is beginning an ambitious attempt to address the difficulties of increasing affordable housing.

How to achieve one of Mayor Wilmot Collins' goals -- developing new affordable housing -- is a question many are attempting to answer in Helena and throughout Montana.

The city commission’s stated goal for a meeting Wednesday came from the 2011 Helena Growth Policy, which was to provide “housing that is safe, available, accessible and affordable for all sections of the population.” Those goals, city staff believe, can be accomplished by working with nonprofit agencies to maximize housing resources for low- and moderate-income residents, supporting development of additional housing and encouraging housing development close to “existing infrastructure.”

Groups in Helena who had previously been “siloed,” as Helena Area Habitat for Humanity’s Director Jacob Kunz put it, came together to discuss their areas of expertise in order to better cover affordable housing needs in the area.

Affordable housing issues span from simply lack of housing -- a dearth of one-bedroom units was mentioned by Sherri Downing of the Helena Housing Authority -- to financial issues and debt management.

“It’s about bringing everyone together to talk about solutions and work ourselves out of our jobs,” Allison Munson, executive director of Helena’s United Way program, said.

Homeless and low-income families struggling to make payments on housing along with medication, food and other necessities are major focal points of housing advocacy.

Homeword, a Missoula-based affordable housing nonprofit, presented in front of the multi-group summit about the potential for building affordable housing in Helena. According to Homeword, "affordable" means no more than 30 percent of the person's income is spent on housing. 

Homeword said zoning regulations could provide relief for new affordable housing development.

“Plan to put housing near infrastructure,” Heather McMilin, the housing development director of Homeword, said. “That level of master planning is something your community can work on.”

Helena has sponsored a $1.2 million HOME grant to rehabilitate the Guardian Apartments and a $450,000 grant to build a group home for Center for Mental Health clients experiencing homelessness. The city is also working with the Helena Housing Authority, Habitat for Humanity and the Tri-County Housing Needs Assessment.

“Right now we’re going to address the affordable housing issue, it’s why we have all these stakeholders here today,” Collins said.

Collins believes the “gravity of affordable housing” is connected to other societal ills, as many people who are homeless are also large users of community services. Collins sees this as planning for the future.

“We have been looking at it and we will continue looking at it and get advice from experts,” he said.

Commissioner Heather O’Loughlin felt similarly about the planning process for Helena.

”This is a big issue that is going to take a number of conversations to get a sense of what the city can and should be doing,” O’Loughlin said. “This isn’t a short-term, one-year effort. We need to be thinking longer term with what the city should be planning in building affordable housing and building greater affordable housing opportunities.”

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