Homeword Aims to Change the Image of Affordable Housing

Editor’s Note: Make it Missoula has partnered with the University of Montana’s Online News class, taught by Lee Banville, to create a Citizen Journalism feature that’s all about local views, stories, and issues. We’re excited to provide them with a platform so they can objectively explore and report about the topics they think reflect the lives and times of Missoula and its citizens.


Homeword, a Missoula-based non-profit, wants to change the image of affordable housing to no longer be the simple, boxy concrete buildings on the edge of town.

“We want to give people pride in where they live,” Homeword employee Joellen Shannon said.

Built using sustainable building techniques and designed with the community in mind, the Homeword project has six buildings in Missoula with a total of 156 rental units that range from townhomes to studios. Each building is designed to have “community rooms” where tenants can get to know each other and pursue their hobbies. The community rooms range from workshop space to community gardens and depend on the theme of the given property.

Just off Reserve Street near the Clark Fork River is one Homeword property called Orchard Gardens. A community barn, adjacent garden plots, and greenhouses are inspired by the days when Missoula earned the title of the Garden City. Orchard Gardens’ agricultural-themed design is inspired by its location on the outskirts of town, according to Shannon.

Thanks to a partnership with Garden City Harvest, residents are able to take part in their Volunteer for Veggies program which lets them take home fresh vegetables and fruit for only a few hours of work. Shannon said they hoped the project would help, saying, “people who are burdened by rent and income often don’t have time to garden.”

Garden City Harvest is another non-profit in Missoula aimed at helping low-income families and individuals. The community garden at Orchard Gardens is available to anyone in Missoula through Garden City Harvest’s community garden program, but residents have preference in using the plots.

Gold Dust features a rooftop garden, community workshop and stylish design.

Gold Dust features a rooftop garden, community workshop, and stylish design.

A few blocks from downtown is another community garden, but this one has a very different purpose. Gold Dust, another property built by Homeword, emphasizes art and has a more urban theme. Residents can unwind in the rooftop gardens or get creative in the community workshop.

A central location and rooftop gardens usually come at a premium, but offering these amenities to low-income families is central to Homeword’s mission.

Homeword bases the rent of their units on the annual median income in Missoula. They then calculate the price of rent so that it takes up no more than a third of the tenant’s income. Rent varies among the units from 60 percent of the Missoula median income to as little as 10 percent.

Other low-income housing is often run using income-based rent, where the tenant’s rent is based on their income and assets. Some housing advocates criticize the technique, saying it deters tenants from wanting to make more money or build up a savings account because it would increase their rent.

One Homeword tenant did cite the income issue as part of the reason he would be leaving the complex.

“I’ve been living here since I moved to Missoula four years ago; since then I’ve lived as cheaply as possible,” Emanuel Preta said. “I’ve worked part time jobs on and off and haven’t saved any money. Next month, though, I’m finally moving out and I’m looking forward to building up my savings without having to report to my landlord.”

Missoula Housing Authority manages affordable housing in Missoula, including Homeword’s properties. Properties that were built with state funds are subject to the rules of the 1937 Housing Act which require that rent is income-based. Because Homeword’s properties are mostly privately funded they don’t have to follow this rule, but generally do adhere to the idea.

Shannon and others said it was particularly important to focus on affordable housing in Missoula.

Historically, the Garden City has been a difficult place for many to find affordable housing. The annual median household income in 2009 for Missoula was $10,000 less than the rest of the state, coming in at $32,046. At the same time the median house/condo value in 2009 for Missoula was $241,000 as compared to $176,000 in the rest of Montana.

Homeword has been working on increasing the availability of affordable housing for 18 years now and continues to build new buildings. Their most recent building is called Solstice and it celebrated its grand opening on February 2. It is the second housing complex Homeword has built off the intersection of Russell and Broadway.