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Innovative housing project aims to boost Missoula’s affordability

With help from a local couple, Habitat for Humanity and a land trust team up for development
Mariposa Commons
Posted at 2:50 PM, Feb 21, 2024

On a sunny Saturday morning, about two dozen people celebrated the groundbreaking of an innovative affordable housing project in Missoula’s Franklin to the Fort neighborhood.

The Mariposa Commons triplex — tucked behind a single-family home on Burlington Avenue — will not only be affordable to its first residents through the Habitat for Humanity of Missoula but for generations of owners as part of the North Missoula Community Development Corporation’s land trust.

The Montana Free Press reports the building’s design focuses on sustainability and efficiency to decrease energy and maintenance needs, according to the organizations.

“This is a pretty remarkable project,” said Todd Franicevich, Habitat interim executive director, during the groundbreaking event on Feb. 17. “The genius build crew have ideas to make it affordable and livable. Affordable for our partner families to purchase and in the long-term.”

The project goes back to 2021, when the previous property owners, Marilyn Marler and David Schmetterling, reached out to NMCDC about bringing their rental property into the land trust, Brittany Palmer, the non-profit’s executive director, told Montana Free Press. The couple wanted to keep or expand the home’s affordability without displacing their long-term tenant, Palmer said.

Marler and Schmetterling had planned to sell the Burlington Avenue property when they retire but, during the height of Missoula’s housing crisis, decided to seek out a different option, Schmetterling said.

“We wanted to be part of the solution,” he said.

The development corporation worked with Marler and Schmetterling to get a $330,000 federal grant authorized by the Missoula City Council to help the nonprofit purchase the property for $375,000, a price below market rate, Palmer said. The couple donated $75,000 at closing toward the project, she said.

Bringing the property into the land trust means a future homebuyer would purchase the home for an affordable price and lease the land from NMCDC, Palmer said. Community land trusts offer homes at more affordable rates because the value of the land doesn’t factor into the price, according to NMCDC’s website. When they’re ready to move, the homeowner agrees to sell the home at a restricted price to keep it affordable.

“It’s really exciting to us because we not only preserve the existing home as a permanently affordable residence for the current tenant and all future generations of folks who may live there, but it helps us support the tenant in possibly purchasing the home,” Palmer said.

About a year ago, NMCDC began working with Habitat for Humanity to get more homes on the property, designing the triplex on the back of the lot as infill development, Palmer said. The building includes two three-bedroom units and one two-bedroom unit. Like other Habitat projects, partner families will help build the triplex before purchasing their new homes.

As Habitat’s first multifamily housing project in Missoula, designers had to balance density requirements — like parking spaces and sidewalks — with the organization’s practice of including an outdoor green space in its projects, Jason Gutzmer, regenerative design project coordinator for Habitat, told MTFP. That led to the idea of a rooftop space for each unit, including pergolas, shade roofs and room for a garden or barbeque, he said. Habitat is working to secure funding for solar panels, and at the very least, the building will be wired for future installation, said Tor Gudmundsson, program director.

The building design includes other adjustments to make it greener and more efficient, Gutzmer said. For example, using the “Mooney wall” or strapped-wall technique makes insulation more efficient, requiring less petroleum-based products like spray foam insulation, he said. The building’s eaves will shade the second-floor windows, protecting them from the summer sun, and the heating system will use water instead of air, which is more efficient, Gutzmer said.

“These are really simple design things, but you have to commit to them and do them,” he said. “Green has gotten a bad rap, … but the truth is, natural building and green building can be really affordable and often out-compete industry-standard, code-compliant buildings.”

Working with volunteer crews makes the scope of a multifamily project more daunting than Habitat’s typical single-family houses, Gutzmer said. The second floor and rooftop space add complexities, prompting the organization to increase its outreach to industry professionals for donations of time or materials, he said.

“We want to grow that community of builders who want to give back,” Gutzmer said. “We know the housing crisis is affecting everyone, and this is an opportunity for more professionals to get involved.”

Utility work began ahead of Saturday’s groundbreaking and excavation will follow in the coming weeks, Gutzmer said. Volunteers built the interior walls offsite while waiting for permits last spring and summer, he said.

It’s difficult to predict how long construction will take, but work would ideally wrap up later this year, said Steve Robarsky, designer and construction lead.

Mariposa Commons may be Habitat for Humanity and North Missoula Development Corporation’s first project together, but both organizations expect it won’t be the last.

“It’s a great partnership because we get to be experts in bringing land into trust held in behalf of [the] community, and they get to be experts in affordable housing development,” Palmer said. “The community benefits by having a portion of housing stock reserved for folks who earn less than the median income.”

Going forward, Habitat is looking to use the land trust model for more projects to keep them in the affordable housing pool, Gutzmer said.

“These can be models for workforce housing for the people who keep Missoula going,” he said. “That’s a really exciting thing, to work on these projects on land trusts because it keeps everything more sustainable.”

Gutzmer and Robarsky are pushing for future projects to incorporate green building techniques, providing an opportunity for local professionals to learn while constructing affordable houses, Gutzmer said.

“A lot of these products and things, they’re not super technical or dangerous, mechanical or chemical,” he said. “They’re very friendly to work with volunteers and a lot are fun.”