Special Report: Helena’s affordable housing shortage

Posted at 5:18 PM, May 11, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-05 15:00:39-04

HELENA – Elizabeth Guevin is an active member of the Helena community. Someone you’ve surely seen around town volunteering at the Lewis and Clark Library or the Helena Food Share or at her local church, Our Lady of the Valley. As a disabled navy veteran, she fills her time giving back to a community she loves.

“I do it all for the sheer thing of giving back to the community,” Guevin said.

When she’s not doing any of that, she’s probably visiting with her grandchildren. While Elizabeth stays busy, none of her hobbies help pay the bills. Instead, Social Security and her veteran benefits do. Living on a fixed income means Elizabeth had to find an affordable place to live, something that has proved challenging for many in the tri-county area.

So Elizabeth turned to the Helena Housing Authority which provides housing that adjusts to the renter’s income. 15 years ago, The Housing Authority gave her a unit at M.E. Anderson where she’s lived ever since. Her home is one of more than 300 units of public housing operated by the Helena Housing Authority.

Michael O’Neil is the Executive Director of the HHA. O’Neil said they provide services to some of the most vulnerable people in society.

“We serve some of the lowest income citizens in the community. We’re serving seniors and elderly living on fixed income. Persons with disabilities. Working families,” O”Neil said.

The work is important because, for Elizabeth, knowing she has a home where rent will never exceed one-third of her income is important because she knows what it’s like not to make rent.

“I’ve been homeless before in my life actually living under a bush. I’ve actually lived like under a bush before,” Guevin said. “Thinking about having a place as your forever home kind of gives you a sense of security.”

Families are another big group that often rely on affordable housing. Lanessa Littrell moved into the Stewart Homes Community in Helena over a year ago with her husband and two children.

“We were living in a two bedroom apartment and as my children grew older, that was just too small for us. And finding an affordable three bedroom was just kind of non-existent in the Helena area,” Littrell said.

Lanessa’s struggle to find affordable housing is so common that the Helena City Commission took an unprecedented step and called a special meeting in May to address the issue.

“A lot of families are getting priced out of the market and we’re seeing particularly low income families struggling to find affordable, safe stable housing and we know this is a growing problem for middle income families as well,” Heather O’Loughlin, a Helena City Commissioner, said.

The city is looking at some creative solutions to the problem and is in talks with Homeward, a provider of affordable housing that already has constructed housing across Montana including places like Bozeman and Missoula.

O’Loughlin said there’s a lot the city can be doing.

“There’s property that the city owns that we should be thinking about how we’re using that property,” O’Loughlin said.

In the meantime, the United Way of the Lewis and Clark area is one of the nonprofits working on this issue. They host weekly meetings with other nonprofits to address specific cases related to housing.

“They really get in the weeds which is really fantastic. They’re talking about “we know that you offer this program and we can’t help this individual with this aspect of what’s going on in their lives, but you can,’” Dana Friede with the local United Way, said.

The United Way and Rocky Mountain Development Council also recently wrapped up a needs assessment to survey the community and will use the results to help people find a place to live.

“We know that by providing affordable housing people then can have an opportunity that they wouldn’t otherwise have,” O’Neil said.

That opportunity might be to one day own a home. Aja Rail was pregnant and penniless when she moved to Montana more than a decade ago. That’s when she rented a unit at Stewart homes.

“They said it was a stepping stone. A place for people to be and get their life together,” Rail said.

She lived there for seven years, but now she is a first-time home buyer and she attributes it all to public housing.

“Honestly, I don’t know where I’d be without the Helena Housing Authority,” Rail said.