By Keila Szpaller DAILY MONTANAN
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 Gary Lundy, a military veteran and poet. 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.
When Gary Lundy first moved to Missoula, he paid the rent on his Northside apartment sight unseen, at least in person.
He didn’t get the key for maybe a week.
When he did, he figured the home a half block from the train tracks was meant to be.
“The key was a fairy, and I knew it was mine,” said Lundy, who describes himself as queer. “This is my place. It fit perfectly. It still fits perfectly, if I weren’t so messy.”
This year, the U.S. Navy veteran, working poet and retired professor from the University of Montana Western will count 10 years in his apartment — a one-bedroom in an historic building with space enough for him, his writing desk and notebooks, and his collection of 1,000, maybe 2,000, books.
(They’re mostly poetry books, thin, but in legion numbers, and growing: “I’m a little bit of a hoarder too — of books.”)
In recent years, affordable housing and rentals in Montana have been lacking, and the crisis in Missoula hit a new milestone when Mayor Jordan Hess earlier this year declared homelessness and sheltering a state of emergency.
Many buyers are purchasing old buildings, such as the Wolf Avenue place where Lundy lives, and ratcheting up the rents to levels longtime residents can’t afford.
A couple of years ago, the owner of the Wolf Avenue building decided to sell, and Lundy figured he’d be out. “I’m old now — 25 more years and I’d be 100.” One of his retirements is slowly running out, and he knew he couldn’t afford a significant hike in rent.
“I knew that if that happened, I would have to move outside of Missoula,” Lundy said.
Instead, one of his friends and neighbors, Melissa Bangs, convinced her dad, Collin Bangs, a developer and affordable housing advocate in Missoula, to buy the building as a temporary owner.
In the meantime, she kicked off a process with residents and a team of experts in housing to try to do the impossible — create a deal that would buck the tide in Missoula and keep residents in their homes.
Lundy had appreciated the previous owner, Rick Booth, who intended to keep the rents low for working people, and he loved hearing about its history from Booth. In the last decade, he’s also appreciated the people who have lived alongside him.
“The neighbors I’ve had, not just the ones I have now, but the people in the building have all been really cooperative, if you will,” Lundy said.
When the idea of a “co-op” first came up, Lundy figured the plan would be to set up a group of owners who would ensure the rent would remain steady. Ownership didn’t cross his mind, although his apartment makes sense for him, a single person without a partner.
Regardless, he would never intend to leave the Northside neighborhood. It’s a corner of Missoula with old railroad homes for workers, traditionally considered the wrong side of the tracks.
“I like the Northside,” Lundy said. “When I first moved here, people thought the Northside was the rough side of town still, and I like that. I’d much rather be identified with something that scares people.”
(In the past, when he was disturbed, he said his notorious address would fend off hasslers: “I’d tell them I live on the Northside, and on more than one occasion, they’d walk away. For those that didn’t walk away, I’d tell them I have friends in Butte.”)
Now and then these days, Lundy stands outside the building on the shared stoop drinking his coffee or taking a break from writing. He’s frequently fashionable, in velvet purple Dr. Martens, often political, with buttons that say, “Drag is not a crime,” and “Ask me about my gay agenda.”
To create the new model, the residents and housing professionals held a series of intensive meetings, but they took place as Lundy was recovering from open heart surgery, so he mostly didn’t attend. Plus, he isn’t a fan of Zoom.
(“Zoom scares the f— out of me. Quote me on that,” he said. “Electronics to a degree are really foreign to me.” On the other hand, one of the things he loves about Butterfly Herbs, the downtown coffee shop where he’s a regular, is it doesn’t have outlets everywhere. “It’s old school. It’s not fancy.”)
Instead of attending meetings, Lundy walked laps in his home to gain strength after surgery. The design of the home served him well, with just three steps up the stoop, a ground floor apartment, and a bedroom with two doors so he could walk rounds through his home.
Now, he’s a shareholder in the Wolf Avenue project, a new model that used a couple of different tools, including a land trust, to keep apartments affordable in perpetuity. He has a sense of security in that he doesn’t have to move, although his surgery also gave him a different perspective.
“If I hadn’t had open heart surgery, it would all be different,” Lundy said. “Having that surgery, where I live becomes meaningless in the fact that I am breathing.”
He’s always been on the move, crossed into every state, including Hawaii and Alaska, never been “a home person.” Even in Dillon, where he taught, he moved three, four, maybe five times.
“I’ve always been on my way. I’ve never felt fixed. Until I moved here this time. This is the longest I’ve lived in a place in my life,” Lundy said.
Now, he said he’ll probably die in his home.
In the meantime, though, he’ll add to his collection of poetry books, and he wants to help spread the co-op model to other renters.
“I have to figure out how to get more of this done, more places like ours,” Lundy said.