With fanfare, residents welcome visitors to city’s newest affordable housing project

Wendy Woollett, a third-floor resident of Sweetgrass Commons, welcomes dozens of visitors to her new apartment on Wednesday. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Wendy Woollett may spend most of her time in solitude as a local writer, but on Wednesday, she opened her new one-bedroom apartment to several dozen visitors, giving her little time to tend her pot of tea.

Woollett was among the first residents to move into the Sweetgrass Commons affordable housing complex near downtown Missoula – a project years in the making that celebrated its grand opening on Wednesday.

For Woollett, a cancer survivor who still faces medical expenses, the affordable rent has already had a significant impact on her bottom line.

“I have money for food, travel, copay, medical expenses and supplements,” Woollett said. “It’s a comfortable place to live.”

Wednesday’s celebration, held on the lawn of Sweetgrass Commons, marked a milestone for both the Montana Department of Commerce and Homeword, the nonprofit developer that spent years pulling together roughly $6 million in financing to make the project possible.

The funding pool included $4.9 million from the state’s Home Investment Partnership Program, along with contributions from the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, First Security Bank, US Bancorp, and city and county grants.

“Homeword continues to be the best partner we could ask for in insuring we continue to develop and get new affordable housing online,” said Eran Pehan, director of the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development. “Sweetgrass is a beautiful example of how you can build affordable housing that’s sustainable, has exceptional design standards and is built in a way that will serve the community for decades to come.”

The project stands apart from what’s typically seen as affordable housing. It includes underground parking and airy rooms with those on the third floor offering well-appointed views of the Missoula Valley and North Hills.

The development, located between Wyoming and Montana streets, also sits near the Old Sawmill District, one of the largest urban infill projects taking place in Montana. For the Sweetgrass residents, the location means easy access to daily amenities and marks an easy stroll to the attractions in downtown Missoula.

Julie Stiteler, with Homeword, gives visitors a tour of Sweetgrass Commons during Wednesday’s grand opening celebrations. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“Twenty-seven units doesn’t sound like it makes a huge dent, but when it’s targeted to people who make 60 percent of the area median income, it really does,” said Pehan. “It’s really those hardworking Missoulians who aren’t making that much above minimum wage and are struggling to balance the cost of child care, medical bills, food – all the daily expenses we have on top of continuing escalating rent.”

Housing affordability remains one of Missoula’s most pressing issues. While the cost of a median-priced home has risen to a record-setting $255,000 in Missoula, the price for rent also has climbed in recent years, standing at $625 for a one-bedroom located in a multiplex.

The cost of a two-bedroom apartment in the same facility is nearly $800. For many families, making rent is a stretch when compared to local wages.

“We all know that the availability of affordable housing is a key ingredient to growing Montana’s economy,” said Pam Haxby-Cote, director of the Montana Department of Commerce, who attended Wednesday’s event. “This new development will provide opportunities for hardworking people and their families to be able to afford to live in the heart of Missoula.”

For the next 46 years, Sweetgrass Commons will remain affordable to families earning between 40 and 60 percent of the area median income. In Missoula, those who make $14.20 an hour or less may qualify, though the availability of such housing is in limited supply.

Pehan said it’s something the city is working to address.

“Our goal is to figure out how we can continue to support our nonprofit developers and work with private developers to offer them the same incentives, so we can have more people developing affordable housing,” Pehan said.

The city is working on a new housing policy that will lay the framework for building more affordable units throughout the city. The policy should be completed by the end of the year, Pehan said.