The city of Missoula has been selected as one of 50 mid-sized cities nationwide to receive a $60,000 grant to study the conditions that lead to asthma, obesity and mental health issues in its three lowest-income neighborhoods.

The funding to take part in the new Invest Health initiative comes from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest health philanthropy group, and the Reinvestment Fund, a community development financial institution based in Philadelphia.

Missoula was chosen from more than 170 communities with populations between 50,000 and 400,000 that applied. A team of representatives from the Missoula City-County Health Department, the city’s Development Services, NeighborWorks Montana, Providence St. Patrick Hospital and United Way of Missoula County will work to improve the affordability and accessibility of healthy homes and healthy behaviors through the built environment. They’ll look at indoor quality and weatherization, lack of access to active transportation, lack of trails, green space and parks, high housing costs and safety.

According to Lisa Beczkiewicz, the team member from the health department, the three neighborhoods – Missoula Northside/Westside, River Road and Franklin to the Fort – were chosen because residents there suffer from a disproportionately high number of health ailments.

“As a nation we know that people that have the most unhealthy lifestyles live in the poorest neighborhoods, and Missoula has not escaped that trend unfortunately,” she said.

Missoula housing affordability index has been on a downward trend for the past few years, and Beczkiewicz said that has real health implications.

“Housing costs in Missoula continue to rise, and so at the end of the month after people pay rent or their mortgage, they don’t have any money left over for healthy food,” she explained. “We need to create more affordable housing. We’re going to do focus groups within these neighborhoods and get to the root of the problem. I feel very blessed that we got this grant so we can make concrete changes that people can really feel and touch and understand.”

Beczkiewicz said that it is a planning grant, so she’s not exactly sure yet how the outreach will be conducted.

“The goal will be to produce a plan to improve conditions in these areas,” said city communications director Ginny Merriam.

The Invest Health project was created to transform how leaders in mid-sized American cities, where there is often entrenched poverty, poor health and a lack of investment, can work together to improve the lives of low-income residents.

“The relationship between where we live and how we live in Missoula is key to enhancing quality of life for all Missoulians,” said Laval Means, city of Missoula planning services manager. “This was an important element of the recently adopted City Growth Policy, as the document addresses health components directly related to the built environment. With support from the Invest Health Initiative, we can go a step further by planning to create a broad collaboration of community partners to lift people out of poverty through improved housing, health and education.”

The Missoula team will explore ideas like leveraging capital to improve housing and health, developing housing, assessing individual homes for air quality and weatherization, creating bikeable and walkable neighborhoods with lighting and engaging community discussions.

“With a long history in community development finance, we are excited to help create a pipeline to channel capital into low-income communities through public and private investments,” said Amanda High, chief of strategic initiatives at Reinvestment Fund. “Our goal is to transform how cities approach tough challenges, share lessons learned and spur creative collaboration.”

The Missoula team will travel to Philadelphia for a kick-off meeting on June 7 and will engage local stakeholders throughout the 18-month project.

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