A collaboration between two Missoula nonprofits, the city and federal governments and a private homeowner will result in the creation of four permanently affordable homes on a parcel of land in a centrally located neighborhood.
And at least one longtime Missoulian, a teacher in her 60s who has seen the housing market explode beyond her means, will get to avoid being displaced.
“I would be homeless if this hadn’t followed through the way it did,” explained Suzanne Demarinis.
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Brittany Palmer, the newly hired executive director of the nonprofit North Missoula Community Development Corporation, explained how the organization was able to purchase the single-family home on Burlington Avenue where Demarinis has been renting for about five years.
“Marilyn Marler, a state legislator, reached out to us about the property about a year ago,” Palmer said. “She had been renting it out for an affordable price to (Suzanne). Marilyn and her partner David wanted to do something about the housing crisis and offered to sell us the home if we could maintain or expand its affordability.”
The NMCDC was able to utilize a $324,000 federal Community Development Block Grant, authorized by the Missoula City Council, to buy the home for $375,000, well below market-rate. Marler and her partner donated $75,000 back to the organization as a gift as well.
“And we are going to keep renting it affordably to Suzanne and support her in hopefully purchasing it as a subsidized community land trust home,” Palmer explained. They may be able to offer the home to Suzanne for as little as $200,000 because she won’t be buying the land underneath the house.
But because the property is large enough to be split into four lots and is in a neighborhood that is zoned to allow town homes along with single-family homes, the story doesn’t end there. Habitat for Humanity of Missoula is going to have three local families put sweat equity into building, along with volunteers, another three permanently affordable town homes on the back three lots.
“This is the first time the NMCDC has partnered with Habitat in this way, and the first time our local Habitat has built shared-wall town homes,” Palmer explained.
Palmer noted that in Missoula, with sky-high housing prices that are escalating far beyond wages, a teacher on fixed wages would never be able to afford a home without creative thinking. The house on Burlington, if it were sold to the highest bidder, would probably be redeveloped into expensive high-end housing. Palmer evoked the words of her predecessor, Bob Oaks, as she pointed out the huge yard behind the house.
“I think Bob would call this bulldozer bait,” she said. “Houses like these are at risk of somebody investing in them and just kicking the people out. So we’re hoping that by telling the story of this house that other people might want to do it.”
Marler, who represents HD 90 in Missoula, said she and her husband bought the house a long time ago as an investment. But after seeing the housing prices escalate here during the pandemic and how it affected those who had lived here for a long time, they decided they wanted to just get a little bit of their equity back and try to help a few residents.
“We wanted to be part of the solution, rather than the problem,” she said.
Heather Harp, the executive director of the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity of Missoula, said she hopes other homeowners in Missoula will have the same idea.
“This is a really great example of various different housing allies working together to solve our affordability problem,” Harp said. “We had Marilyn coming in with the asset, which there’s a lot of those around town. She and I had a conversation about how we can add additional infill lots, and her property was poised perfectly to put in a triplex that would fit in with the character of the neighborhood.”
Harp noted that the NMCDC is in the land trust business but not the homebuilding business.
“We found we could collaborate in a way to build three more permanently affordable homes for our working-class,” Harp said.
Harp said there are already three families set to build the three homes.
“One is a disabled veteran and her kid, and the other two families are both employed by local nonprofits, which is one of those segments that’s greatly underserved,” Harp said.
For Demarinis, who has lived in Missoula her whole life and even owned a home here before, the situation is like a dream. She works as an English-language teacher online and as a substitute at different schools around town. On her salary, it was inevitable that housing and rent prices would crush her dreams for retirement if the house had been sold at the highest price. She’s seen what rents are around town.
“This is my forever home,” she said.