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When people think of low income housing, they rarely think of thoughtfully designed architecture, modern technological features and beautiful landscaping. That, however, is exactly what Homeword, a nonprofit based in Missoula, Montana, is creating for its community.
Created 18 years ago, Homeword develops “sustainably built affordable housing and then we also promote strong communities through housing counseling and education for those most in need,” explains Executive Director, Andrea Davis.
Homeword has built 13 housing developments consisting of 228 units since its creation in 1995, each with both environmental sustainability and tenant happiness at the forefront of their plans. The women who started the organization were dedicated to providing good quality but affordable housing for community members who most needed it.
Davis says that, “that group of people had the vision from the beginning that you can't build for the future by destroying the environment today so Homeword has been a green builder for 18 years.” The developments are built to produce as little waste and negative impact on the surrounding area as possible.
“We believe in utilizing our existing infrastructure,” says Davis, “so utilizing our existing roads, sidewalks, water lines and also land that has already been developed that may have then a higher and better use. So not building out in green land basically and farm land but utilizing the existing urban core.”
Equinox and Solstice, their two most recent developments, have been built with exactly that in mind. They are within the hustle and bustle of the city, but set along the river and have a beautifully landscaped green space for tenants to enjoy. The parking garage is located underneath the communal green space to maximize the space for tenants and to improve the aesthetics of the campus.
“We do put more investment into our buildings up front and that helps us reduce our operating and maintenance costs long-term on our properties. There's a direct benefit then to the people that live here. We can reduce their living costs,” explains Davis.
Everything is planned with sustainability in mind and to that effect, the two buildings have a large gray water system that collects “the water that comes from the laundry and people's bathroom sinks and filters down into a reservoir and we use it to irrigate the beautiful green space,” explains Jennifer Betz, the Homeword Asset Manager.
The units themselves are also built with programable thermostats, which ensure not only a more efficient system but also lower utility bills for the tenants. The interiors of the buildings are decorated with “low VOC paints and adhesives, and it promotes healthy indoor air quality so we really focus on providing a healthy environment for tenants,” says Betz.
But the list of environmentally friendly features does not end there. There are solar panels, which provide power for lighting in communal areas, LED and power saving lights, and bathrooms full of gadgets to reduce water consumption.
While tenants must pay for their electrical and gas utilities, it is Homeword that pays for water, garbage and recycling. In an attempt to encourage the residents to start thinking as sustainably as possible, Homeword makes recycling as easy as possible and at no cost to the tenants.
Davis explains that “we're not developing rent-subsidized housing ... so folks have to pay a certain rent. Our rent is basically restricted or affordable but it's not subsidized so to a large degree, we are serving the working class.”
Their provision of affordable housing that is a joy to live in is only one part of Homeword’s mission, however. Davis says that “we wrap our arms around both sides of the housing picture. We develop affordable housing using sustainable methods and then we also teach homebuyer education and financial literacy and we provide one on one housing counseling for folks that may not be ready to purchase a home but eventually have that goal.”
The goal is to provide the independence for people to take control of their own future. “We create this housing that helps foster self-respect, they take our education classes and they have the tools. And it's really a longer-term strategy towards poverty reduction,” says Davis.
Both tenants and non-residents can attend their home ownership classes and learn about all the joys, and pitfalls, of buying their own home. “Most of the folks that go through our class end up not missing a payment. They understand that they've got ways to and support to figure out how to make this work for them and how to be proactive.”
Davis says she is especially proud of the work Homeword does when one of their long-term residents is able to take their class, save up, and then buy their own home, safe in the knowledge that they know how to deal with the financial commitments involved.
The Homeword buildings certainly are eye-catching and their status as low-income housing might surprise some. Davis says Homeword “wanted to bring this part of Missoula back to life and we've done that through the development of Equinox and Solstice.”
The joy and support they bring to people in the community is evident, and Homeword’s passion is even more so. Davis emphasizes that “it's really heart warming to run into folks that are contributing members of this community. They're working folks and they have their home because of a class that we provided at little or no cost. … those stories are what really make us tick.”