On January 27, city council members approved the proposed Fourth Street Project, a condominium that would include permanent affordable housing. The project has drawn both support and opposition, but city council members voted to approve after the final committee hearing and a lengthy period of public comment. Heather Harp, city council member of Ward 3, spoke to KGVO News about the council’s decision to vote in favor of the project.

“Ultimately, after hearing all the comments that we heard in person and weighed all the different emails that we received in support and in opposition of the project, council elected 10-0 in favor of the project going ahead,” Harp said. Two council members were absent. “What that did is, for the first time, we were able to allocate 20% to affordable housing in this particular project. We were able to do that because we had a lever that we have never had before, and that was the right-of-way vacation, and that was really impressive.”

Right-of-way vacation is the transferal of right-of-way on a public street to a private property owner. In this case, the city council vacated right-of-way along South Fourth Street East on Ronald Avenue. City council members say that granting right-of-way vacation to the developers allows council to negotiate conditions for the project. One of the conditions approved by council members prohibits the developer from building commercial units within the building. Negotiating with the developer also allows council to mandate affordable housing for 20% of the units.

“We had a lot of supporters saying, ‘Hey, we have a lot of folks in our community who are desperate in terms of trying to find housing that meets their 30% of income.’ We haven’t been able to do anything in the past, and in large part, it’s because we have only had federal dollars that have come in through Low Income Housing Tax Credits that go to only qualified census tracks,” Harp stated.

Missoula has twelve different census tracks, or geographic areas designated for census taking. Three of Missoula’s census tracks are Qualified Census Tracks, defined as a track where 50% or more of households have incomes below 60% of the Area Median Gross Income, or with a poverty rate of 25% or higher. Missoula’s Qualified Census Tracks are the North side, the West side, and Franklin-to-the-Fort; these areas receive federal funds that go towards low income housing.

However, Harp said that Missoula has become “so reliant” on federal funding, which was one of the reasons that lead council to decide to “share in the responsibility” of housing Missoulians. The housing project would include deed-restricted units, make the building structurally affordable. Unit prices would not change subject to a landowner or market fluctuation.

Opposition to the Fourth Street Project contends that the project would block scenic views, create noise and traffic, and disrupt residents in the neighborhood. One of the conditions of the project also states that the developer must pay to relocate historic homes that are in the proposed project area.

Still, city council members expressed that approving the project will prevent another developer from demolishing buildings in the area and constructing whatever zoning allows. Council members also voiced hopes that the project would lead the way in environmentally friendly housing in Missoula.

The council has discussed opening a housing trust fund as well. Missoula’s housing trust fund is currently empty. Harp says that anyone can donate to the housing trust fund through the treasurer at City Hall.