Housing conundrum: Great need for affordable rentals drives repurposing of Livingston Memorial Hospital


The former Livingston Memorial Hospital’s gutted laboratory is pictured in June 2016. The old health care facility is undergoing conversion into affordable rental units, to meet the great demand in Livingston and Park County for less costly housing. (Enterprise file photo by Hunter D’Antuono)
By: 
Liz Kearney
Enterprise Staff Writer

The fair market rate for the monthly rent on a two-bedroom apartment or house in Park County is $853. But that rental average is beyond the reach of the county’s average hourly wage  — $11.21 per hour —  according to data in a document titled “Out Of Reach 2017” on housing costs in the U.S.

The document was prepared by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. 

Ideally, a household should spend no more than 30 percent of its monthly income on housing, Jessica Burson, fundraising and marketing manager with the Missoula-based Homeword, said Thursday. 

Homeword, in conjunction with a similar housing-based nonprofit, NeighborWorks Montana, is working to secure funding to renovate the former Livingston Memorial Hospital property, located at 504 S. 13th St. Homeword will hold a public meeting and open house at the property from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 18. 

The purpose of the meeting is to offer tours of the building and, since the area is in construction mode, closed-toe shoes are recommended. 

Homeword proposes to build 34 rental units. The units would be a mixture of studios and one and two-bedrooms, Burson said, and include common space both indoors and out. Homeword is also looking for comments from the public on what the project could mean for Livingston residents — both individually as well as the community at large. 

“We envision a mixture of seniors and families,” Burson said.

A single renter would need to make $16.40 an hour in Livingston to afford a two-bedroom rental costing $853 a month. At $11.21 an hour, applying the 30 percent target for housing costs, an employee can afford $583 a month for rent, according to the “Out of Reach 2017” document. 

The income level Homeword seeks to house is roughly in the $12.23 per hour range, or about $25,440 per year, depending on household size, she said. 

Homeword is pursuing a financing package to develop the former hospital. The financing package includes a competitive application for housing tax credits to the Montana Board of Housing, a federal HOME grant to the Montana Department of Commerce, foundation and individual donations, and mortgage debt, according to a Homeword news release. 

The Montana Board of Housing selected the Livingston project as one of eight finalists from among 18 applications to be considered for funding, Burson said. Katie Weaver, an economic and community development agent with Montana State University-Park County Extension, who has been working with the former hospital project, said Thursday the MBOH may ultimately fund five of the eight finalists. 

The grant application is due in September, and information gathered from Tuesday’s open house will be used to support the application, she said. 

“Demonstrated public support was a factor” in Livingston making it to finalist status, Weaver said. “The more public involvement, the stronger the low-income tax credit application will be.” 

Livingston’s rental market has been hit recently by owners selling their rental properties along with an increase in vacation rentals. Fewer rentals available and higher costs can lead to households paying up to 50 percent of their income for housing, Burson said. 

“No one should have to choose between paying rent and putting food on the table,” she added.  

A number of Park County residents pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing. 

“In 2014, an estimated 41 percent of renters in Park County and 30 percent of homeowners were paying more than 30 percent of their income for home costs,” Homeword Executive Director Andrea Davis said in the news release. “The need has only increased as the demand has skyrocketed since 2014.”

Safe and healthy affordable housing creates stable communities and homes where children can grow and thrive, Davis said. And sufficient affordable housing helps a town’s overall economics. For example, Burson has heard anecdotally about restaurants reducing the number of pages on their menus and other businesses needing to reduce the number of hours or days they’re open because they can’t find employees. 

“Home is more than just a roof over your head. It’s where jobs go to sleep at night and where kids begin and end their school day,” Burson said.

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Liz Kearney may be reached at lkearney@livent.net.