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Task Force Meets To Tackle Affordable Housing Crisis In Whitefish

Dave Fern votes on potential solutions to Whitefish's affordable housing problems at an open house meeting Wednesday. A draft affordable workforce housing plan is expected this November.
Dave Fern votes on potential solutions to Whitefish's affordable housing problems at an open house meeting Wednesday. A draft affordable workforce housing plan is expected this November.

Affordable housing is becoming increasingly hard to find in Whitefish, as second homeowners, mostly from out of state, scoop up real estate and landlords turn their usual long-term rentals into vacation rentals. For people working the low-wage service industry jobs that sustain the area’s tourism economy, there aren’t a lot of options.

Abigail Frizzell found herself homeless last month after her lease expired without the option to renew, and she couldn’t find a new place in her price range.

"I have a truck. I've got a sleeping bag for extra warmth, other pillows, and then all my stuff is at a storage unit in Columbia Falls," she says. "It's a little jerry rigged, but you know, camping is something people in this area do."

She spent a couple weeks camping in her truck and sleeping on friends’ couches while she looked for something in her price range.

"I'm looking for 1 bedroom, $900 or less, which I feel like is a pretty reasonable price," she says.

She never found it, so she ended up leaving her waitressing job in Kalispell to find an apartment in her price range in Missoula.

At its present growth rate, Whitefish will need nearly 1,000 new affordable housing units by 2020 to keep its workforce local, according to a needs assessmentcommissioned by the city. And it’s not just dirt-bag ski bums and waitresses holding down two jobs who are having a hard time affording rent.

The needs assessment says that the median asking price for a newer single-family home is around $450,000. But local household incomes limit people to houses priced at $310,000 or less.

The impact? Fewer year-round residents living in Whitefish, which means fewer people volunteering, fewer young families in town and fewer customers for businesses in between peak tourist seasons.

An affordable workforce housing task force formed last year met Wednesday night, to kick off a new planning process.

City staffer Katie Williams says the aim is having a draft workforce housing plan by November, outlining strategies to increase affordable housing over the next five to ten years.

"I think we're all here because we've identified an issue in our lovely town and we're trying to find a solution to help curb the affordable housing problem and find solutions that are healthy for the entire community," she says.

About 70 people came. The team of city staff, local interest groups and consultants that put the housing needs assessment together gave a quick summary of their findings and explained more than two dozen strategies used in other Rocky Mountain resort towns that could be adopted in Whitefish.

Consultant Melanie Rees was part of the team that drafted the needs assessment. She stressed the importance of local buy-in.

"It needs to have community ownership and support. It needs to be your plan, not our plan," she says.

Those suggestions ranged from rezoning areas to allow for tiny houses, waiving fees for developers who build affordable housing and requiring new commercial buildings to offer employee housing; and partnering with non-profits like Habitat for Humanity and Self Help Build. The team says not all of these would work in Whitefish. They asked everyone to comment on the suggestions, listed on large posters hanging around the room.

Lee Calhoun scribbled his on a post-it note.

"One of the things to do to make housing more affordable is to make it more energy affordable," he says.

Jason Forrest says the city could start enforcing existing regulations on vacation rentals by offer, or VRBOs.

"I think it's low hanging fruit and really needs to happen ... there's too many people renting their houses in unzoned areas," he says.

Jenni Howell would like to see the city take a more active role in securing worker housing.

"If we could acquire market units and combine that with a community land trust, i think that would be amazing if we could figure out how to do that," she says.

The city is already using some strategies outlined at Wednesday’s open house. Whitefish already levies a special, three percent resort town sales tax — the highest rate the state allows. Most of it funds city construction and maintenance projects, but a quarter of its revenue is used to reduce property taxes, which makes housing more affordable. The resort tax brings in about $3 million annually.

This year, the legislature voted down bills that would have allowed resort towns to increase their taxes, and direct revenue from them toward affordable housing. Local restaurant owner Doug Reed, who chairs Whitefish’s resort tax committee, says Whitefish wasn’t looking to do either of those things.

"I didn't hear about anybody wanting to go that extra one percent," he says.

Reed knows the city has a housing problem — most of the staff at his restaurant have to commute from out of town. He says the city hasn’t yet considered allocating revenue from the resort tax to help with the city’s housing problems, but it’s also not off the table.

"We're all mulling that over, and still scratching our heads. We talk about it but we don't know how it's going to look yet," he says.

Back at the open house, other strategies are emerging as popular potential solutions — ideas like zoning for affordability, and rehabilitating unlivable houses. Another open house on Whitefish’s affordable housing plan is tentatively scheduled for September. The city will use feedback from the open houses, and results from an online community survey, to write a draft plan, which will be available for public review this November.

For more information, visit the Whitefish Housing Plan website.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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