New housing model allows Missoulian to grow roots in neighborhood she loves

By: - August 8, 2023 7:48 am

Cassandra Rabe is a shareholder in the Wolf Avenue affordable housing project in Missoula, and she helped work on the new model that preserved affordable units in an historic building. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

Editor’s note: This year, a group of residents in Missoula signed a deal that turned their apartments into permanently affordable homes — and turned them into shareholders.

This series looks at the new affordable housing model and some of the people who won’t be displaced because of it. This story features Cassandra Rabe, who participated in discussions about how to form the new model.

The series also shares a Q&A with the neighbor who catalyzed the deal and talks about her hopes that it can be used in other places in Montana experiencing a crisis of affordability.

Cassandra Rabe lives in a home she believes will be affordable in Missoula for 100 years. Or longer.

“This is going to be a low-income safe haven really as long as the building stands,” Rabe said.

She lives in a neighborhood she loves, one by the train tracks with an industrial feel, a Chinese restaurant in a strip mall, and community gardens.

It’s a stone’s throw away from friends she plays guitar with.

And she’s invested.

“I’d like to see the Northside valued a little bit more,” Rabe said.

The affordable housing project includes an historic apartment building, adjacent home, a yard and flower gardens. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

This year, Rabe and other residents of the Wolf Avenue building on the Northside in Missoula converted the property — with help from a variety of players — into a new ownership model.

The land under the building is in a trust, and residents are shareholders of the collective building and adjacent house.

“I just think this is so radical – literally and figuratively,” Rabe said.

It means she’ll be able to live in her hometown and pick her own paint color for her apartment. Right after the deal closed, she had swatches posted on her walls.

Rabe grew up in Missoula, and as an adult, she lived in Baltimore for about seven years.

She found the urban setting during COVID-19 lonely and challenging and wanted to get back to her family, nature and the quality of life in Montana.

In June 2021, she returned, but she was met with a disheartening rental market. In online searches, instead of seeing available apartments, she read ads from people seeking places to rent.

“I would look every day, but it was very unfruitful,” Rabe said.

If she hadn’t had deep roots in Missoula, she isn’t sure she would have found an apartment.

Years ago, she had helped her friend, Gary Lundy, move into the Wolf Avenue building, and when an apartment opened up in the same place when she was looking, he let her know.

“Because of my deep roots here, I had an upper hand in that way,” Rabe said.

She moved into Wolf Avenue in January 2022. Meetings about how to turn the property into affordable homes already were underway, and Rabe started participating.

In September, she broke her arm and foot in a fall, she couldn’t work for a spell, and knowing there wasn’t a question about whether her apartment would get sold out from under her provided comfort. Her apartment neighbors helped her.

“Honestly, being in a small community like this, I received a lot of support,” Rabe said.

In the meantime, she and the other then-tenants, now shareholders, kept meeting to try to sort out the new model and hammer out a deal that would work.

She had faith they would craft a plan that worked because of the commitment of organizations such as NeighborWorks, which works on housing statewide, and the North Missoula Community Development Corporation, a neighborhood nonprofit.

“It’s a huge learning curve for us tenants, but also for the nonprofits,” Rabe said. “We set a new precedent. There was a novelty about it for everyone.”

Rabe is a shareholder in the new affordable housing project on Wolf Avenue. She was picking her own paint colors this spring. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

At times, she said the work was complex and confusing, but the group kept putting one foot in front of the other. Residents could participate as much or as little as they wanted, and Rabe dove in all the way.

“Even days when I didn’t want to go to a meeting, you remember this is pretty foundational to life,” Rabe said.

Missoula has offered plenty of reminders of the fact too. Rabe said housing insecurity is more visible now, and she knows homelessness is prevalent even when it’s invisible.

She said developers are affecting the market as well.

Rabe knows she herself will make it, even if her monthly housing payment has to increase. She recently started working at Garden City Plumbing and Heating, and she also works as a nanny and dog sitter.

“I’m a hustler, so I make it work,” Rabe said.

In Baltimore, she did freelance film photography and shot many press photos for musicians, but she doesn’t want her artistic passions to be tied to her livelihood.

In the future, Rabe said she’d like to see the city pay closer attention to her neighborhood, fill potholes more quickly and plow snow sooner. The Northside has character, she said.

“It doesn’t sit right with me that just because it’s more of a working class neighborhood, that it doesn’t seem to get the same priority of city concerns,” Rabe said.

In Missoula, she said it’s easy to get bogged down by the state of the housing crisis at large. But the Wolf Avenue project gave her hope, and it gives her hope for the future too.

“One of my favorite aspects of the collective’s project is that baked into the tenants’ (agreement) is that it will be an affordable housing project in perpetuity,” Rabe said.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.