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Whitefish: 20 Percent Of All Development Must Be Affordable Housing

Downtown Whitefish, MT.
Josh Burnham
Montana Public Radio
Downtown Whitefish, MT.

Whitefish needs 1,000 new housing units by next year to keep up with demand. That’s according to a 2016 housing needs assessment that found that about 65 percent of workers commute to the small ski town. 

The new zoning codes will require a fifth of all new development to be managed by the Whitefish Housing Authority. Whitefish Planning and Building Director David Taylor says it’s designed to address part of the city’s affordable housing needs. The new apartments and homes will be income restricted.

“For rentals, it would be 60 to 80 percent of median area income, which is sort of the average income in the valley, which is about $54,000 per year,” Taylor said.

Those looking to purchase homes in the program will be allowed to make 80 to 120 percent of that median income. Taylor says the program has garnered some interest from developers, but he admits it could temporarily push projects into neighboring Columbia Falls and Kalispell.

Local developer Mark Panissiti owns Delmar Pacific Group and he argues the profit margins for developers in Whitefish are already too small.

“How we see it is penalizing development in small towns where we’re trying to bring new product, new housing to the market," Panissiti said. "Not all of it is high-end, expensive housing.”

Other ski towns like Aspen, Colorado have experimented with similar affordable housing programs for decades. Over 50 percent of Aspen’s roughly 7,000 residents live in affordable housing units. Aspen City Planner Ben Anderson says that’s a success.

“I think without that program, Aspen over time would have had difficulty maintaining a vibrant diverse community of any sort,” Anderson said.

That’s the goal of Whitefish’s new zoning measures, which go into effect Wednesday. It’s unclear when new affordable housing units will hit the market because that’s dependent on future development.

The city says it is also in the process of rolling out other affordable housing projects and programs.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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