By Elizabeth Zach, RCAC staff writer
Kalispell, Montana – By many accounts, this lush, pastoral expanse of the United States may be the country’s most stunning. Serene, picturesque Flathead Lake to the south and Glacier National Park to the north attracts tourists year-round, such that Flathead County is expanding in both population and labor force.
But all of this growth has unfortunately not translated into more homes for this burgeoning population. According to a market study commissioned by the Community Action Partnership of Northwest Montana (CAPNM), a local nonprofit housing organization, more than 4,000 affordable homes should ideally be built to house the families that come here to work. The market study demonstrated a 1 percent vacancy rate among market rate multifamily rentals, and there are no vacancies among the 402 affordable units surveyed in the area.
“And the waiting list for those 402 units is a whopping 463 families,” said Marney McCleary, who until recently worked with CAPNM. She is now a project developer with Development Solutions, one of several housing programs Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) has to address the lack of rural housing. “The market study found rents had gone up at every property surveyed, whether market or affordable.”
Northwest Montana’s housing shortage is not unique, and like other rural areas around the country, it has become even harder to finance affordable home construction. Rural families often do not qualify for traditional home loans.
But in the spring, McCleary and others celebrated completing a housing rehabilitation project that saved existing affordable housing and eased Kalispell’s housing woes. It is a project that was made possible thanks to a complex but effective collaboration among several agencies and funders. The Courtyard Apartments, a 32-unit affordable housing property in the city’s southwest, includes eight dwellings for people living with long-term disabilities.
“Northwest Montana has such a low stock of low-income housing,” said CAPNM executive director Tracy Diaz, “and so to be able to maintain and improve this housing is significant.” The Courtyard Apartments, she added, is Montana’s first Section 811 project, which designates housing for individuals living with disabilities.
Constructed in 1995, Courtyard has been home to families with children, seniors, veterans and disabled residents. But, more than two decades since it was built, the building had gradually fallen into disrepair.
“The property unfortunately had a lot of deferred maintenance over the years,” explains Eileen Piekarz, an RCAC rural development specialist for housing. “The project had originally been underwritten very tightly, which didn’t cover all maintenance needs.”
“I had been hoping and praying for some renovation,” says Randy Nicklaus, a 57-year-old Courtyard tenant. Nicklaus, who has lived alone at the Courtyard for five years, is disabled; spinal injuries and operations weakened his balance. “But I didn’t want to complain,” he quickly adds.
According to Piekarz, the renovation and funding aspects of this large project required varied expertise. In many cases, a local nonprofit agency will take on a complex housing project because it has the development knowledge, staff and financial capacity to handle it. Redeveloping Courtyard, and securing the funding to pay for it, ultimately took the efforts of 10 organizations, including banks, Montana state housing agencies and nonprofit housing organizations.
“RCAC stepped in as a partner along with CAPNM, offering them our expertise, financial strength, experience and staff capacity,” she said. “It was a little boost to expand CAPNM’s capacity.”
McCleary agrees and adds that RCAC’s financial backing was critical to the project.
“When we got into the nuts and bolts of the project,” she said, “we didn’t have the appetite to take the financial risk that was necessary,” referring to her employment still at CAPNM. “RCAC guaranteed the financing.”
CAPNM and RCAC collaborated with Mountain Plains Equity Group on the $5.2 million project using Montana Department of Commerce Housing Division federal housing tax credits. Moreover, the Courtyard renovation would ultimately create 64 local jobs and $2.8 million in earned wages, and the rehabilitated apartments will stay affordable for at least another 46 years.
“The new air-conditioner and heater have really helped to prevent mold that would accumulate around the windows,” one tenant says. “And I really appreciate that all of my appliances were replaced.”
Planning all this took time. For more than four years, CAPNM had been planning to refinance and substantially rehabilitate the property, aiming to preserve its affordability and increase energy efficiency.
“The existing Courtyard Apartments have good bones,” noted a 2017 letter to Montana’s Board of Housing, adding that the property “is ideally located to provide residents easy access to nearby shopping, services, schools and employment. All services and employment opportunities are within one and a half miles of Courtyard Apartments.”
With such a favorable location, it is unsurprising that Courtyard Apartments had no vacancies when plans got underway to renovate the structure, which presented a logistical challenge.
“It was a fully occupied property,” Piekarz said. “We had to relocate everyone who lives there out of their apartments and then, once the work was done, move them back in. And off-site housing in a tight rental market was also a challenge.”
The renovation work started in May 2018 and was finished in January.
“We went building by building, instead of emptying everything out all at once,” Piekarz continued. “CAPNM, the relocation consultant and the property manager took the lead on relocation and communication with the tenants and contractor.”
The renovation included new siding, a new roof, new energy-efficient windows and new outdoor staircases. Inside, the tenants would find new cabinets and flooring, new Energy Star appliances, and new air conditioning. Montana is known for its long cold winters, which led to problems with indoor moisture and ventilation, and was the most common complaint among tenants. Therefore, the renovation includes a heat recovery ventilation system. A fan pulls air from the kitchens and bathrooms, captures 70 percent of the heat, blows the moisture outside, then pulls in fresh air and warms it for the living room and bedrooms.
“This should help improve the air quality,” she said. “It should make the apartments more comfortable.”
Lisa Craven, a 56-year-old tenant, readily agrees.
“The new air-conditioner and heater have really helped to prevent mold that would accumulate around the windows,” she says. “And I really appreciate that all of my appliances were replaced.”
Like her neighbor Randy Nicklaus, Craven is disabled following 16 surgeries on her feet and three on her back to ease pain caused by a degenerative disease. She is more often off her feet than on them. So, the renovations for her have eased her ability to navigate her home and keep it clean.
Moreover, she says, her monthly rent only increased a few dollars.
At the ribbon-cutting ceremony in April, Montana Lieutenant Gov. Mike Cooney recognized the project’s significance, and not just for the tenants.
“The successful rehabilitation of these homes is a perfect example of what happens when public-private partnerships come together to preserve existing affordable housing,” he said. “The Courtyard Apartments are a place that will provide safe and sustainable homes for individuals and families and will strengthen the community of Kalispell for decades to come.”
(Photos taken by Eileen Piekarz.)