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Housing needs assessment, homelessness study in planning stages

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Affordable housing is definitely in short supply on the Flathead Reservation. Just ask anyone who has tried to rent or purchase a home in the past few years. But how big is the gap and how many homes and apartments are needed to fill it? 

A housing needs assessment and homelessness study, spearheaded by the Salish and Kootenai Housing Authority, aims to paint a more complete picture of reservation housing needs. 

SKHA Executive Director Jody Perez convened a preliminary meeting last Monday, which was attended by government representatives from Ronan, Polson and Lake County and Big Water Consulting, the organization tapped by the Tribes to conduct the study. Several staff members from Mission West Community Development Partners also sat in on the virtual planning session. 

Kevin Klingbeil, owner of Big Water, outlined the project, which is funded by two block grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), with additional funding from the Montana Healthcare Foundation. 

Project partners plan to spend the next six weeks developing the framework for the project and training field staff, with the goal of launching data collection in early January, and delivering preliminary data sets by April 1. 

Klingbeil says they plan to reach around 830 people and hire 10 field staff to do so, although if communities want more sampling and can pay for it, more people could potentially be reached in less or the same amount of time.

“The timeline can shrink if we’re able to over-hire,” he said. “If you hire twice the people, you can cut the time in half.” 

Initially the survey will be launched online, with field workers dropping off door hangers that remind residents to fill out the form. Phone calls and in-person visits follow, with old-school paper surveys available for those who aren’t able to navigate the online forms. 

Polson City Manager Ed Meece voiced the concern that spotty internet access could hamper survey response. “We struggle with connectivity across the county. How are we going to gather information – especially on homeless or transitional housing – if we’re only talking to homeowners or renters?” he asked. “If you’re only targeting people with a roof over their head there’s a large percentage you’re not addressing.”

Perez emphasized that the SKHA is especially determined to gather information on those elusive residents. “We’re very interested in the homelessness side of study,” she said. “Since COVID hit us, some people couldn’t shelter in place because they didn’t have housing.”

Lake County Commissioner Gale Decker asked if the survey results would be available to governments beyond the Tribes who participate in the study.

“One-hundred percent,” said Perez. “That’s the beauty of this – it will benefit all of us.” She emphasized that the more municipal and county governments collaborate in developing the survey instrument, the more accurate and useful the results will be. 

According to an overview of the project, communities that want to participate in the reservation-wide assessment must commit to active involvement in the process. That includes providing consultants with relevant plans and data sets, attending planning sessions, contributing to survey content, and hiring and funding local survey field staff.

Participants planned to reconvene this Monday and were encouraged to bring goals and objectives for their particular jurisdictions, including questions for household and business surveys and community meetings that would be useful for planning purposes and grant applications.  

For more information, call SKHA at 406-675-4491.

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