Popularity’s slippery slope
Whitefish has a reputation as a charming ski destination in Montana’s northwest corner that welcomes wayward strays, whether that’s for a season or a lifetime. That attitude has helped grow small businesses and local watering holes, and keep friendly faces on the slopes and behind the bar. But in recent years, more and more people have been drawn to the good thing Whitefish has going on. Locals fear that surging popularity — and skyrocketing cost of living — could push out the very characters that make this place so special.
Mara Silvers Welcome to Shared State. I'm Mara Silvers, and this season we've been digging into stories about political conflicts and how people are working through them. Today I'm here with Justin Franz. He's a freelance journalist based in the Flathead Valley. Justin, what are we hearing here?
Justin Franz This is a promotional film made back in the 1970s for Whitefish's ski hill.
[promotional film] "It's a long way from San Francisco up to Whitefish, Montana, especially astride a motorcycle. But for a fella as serious about skiing as Gene is, it's worth the trouble."
Justin Franz It's about a guy named Gene who rides his motorcycle from his home in San Francisco to Whitefish in search of a seasonal job so he can be closer to the great outdoors, good skiing and a good time.
[promotional film] "Now he was one of those first skiers flying down the mountain over long reaches of trackless power."
Mara Silvers Honestly, it sounds like Gene is having the best life.
Justin Franz It's a good one. It's a good one.
[promotional film] "Now he was really living."
Justin Franz I think this this movie shows, sort of, the mythology of the place, a mythology that's been around for decades, that anyone can come up here and scratch out a life for themselves, either for a single season or for a lifetime. For a long time. That mythology felt real. It felt true, but that's starting to change.
Mara Silvers So you've lived in the valley for about a decade now. What do you mean it's changing?
Justin Franz I think it's harder and harder for everyone to find a spot to live in Whitefish. It's just getting more expensive. It's getting harder for people to achieve that dream that Gene was going after back in 1971 in this promotional film.
Mara Silvers This time on Shared State, the story of how people in the Flathead Valley are dealing with one pressing issue: who gets to call this place home?
Justin, where do you want to start this story?
Justin Franz For me, the story starts with a guy named Uriah Rosenzweig and his dog.
Uriah's originally from California. He's been hopping around the country for the last few years. That was until he came up to the Flathead Valley back in 2019. He was working near Glacier National Park for the year for a glamping company.
Mara Silvers Glamping, is that what you said? What is glamping, like, fancy camping?
Justin Franz You're not roughing it if you're glamping, I guess. Friends convinced him to stay for the winter, so he did, even though he doesn't really do winter.
Uriah Rosenzweig I didn't do cold. I didn't do snow, didn't ski and snowboard. So I was like, OK, I'll give it a month and then I'm going back to California, man. And I've been here full time ever since.
Justin Franz I feel like that's a story you hear from a lot of people in the Flathead Valley. They come here on vacation. They fall in love with the place and then they just stick around.
Uriah Rosenzweig I'm the guy who literally all my life has moved around every two years since I was a baby. That's all I've known, and this is going into my third year here, full time. And it's OK. You know, it's cool, just the community and the people.
Mara Silvers So where does he work now?
Justin Franz Uriah works at the Montana Taphouse. It's a bar and pizza place. It's connected to a ski shop. It's about halfway between downtown Whitefish and the ski hill. You know, whenever I've seen Uriah at the bar it seems like he knows everyone who comes through the door. It's been super easy for Uriah to find friends and build a community for himself. But finding a place he could afford to rent that has been considerably harder.
Uriah Rosenzweig Over the course of a year-and-a-half it's gone from 400 bucks a month per room to 900.
Mara Silvers Oh my God.
Justin Franz Yeah, it's gone up a lot. For six weeks in the summer of 2021 Uriah and his dog had to live in a van behind the bar where he worked. They just didn't have a choice.
Uriah Rosenzweig It was rainy and cold some days, you know. Just, the struggle is real out there. It's not like I was living in a box, but being in the van wasn't the most comfortable situation for me and the pup.
Mara Silvers I mean, the situation that Uriah found himself in, from what you know about Whitefish, is that particularly unique? Is he kind of an outlier?
Justin Franz I mean, it might be an extreme situation to have been living in a van, but I don't think it's a unique finding. A place to rent has been hard for a lot of people. The size of Whitefish has doubled since 1990, but the number of places to live and rent, they just haven't kept up with the number of people there. About five years ago, the city and some other local groups commissioned a study to figure out just how many housing units were actually needed to house the community's workforce, for people like Uriah. The results: The city needed nearly 1,000 new units before the year 2020. About two thirds of those would need to be priced below market rate so that community members could actually afford to live in them.
Mara Silvers OK, so 1,000 more units before 2020. Were now in 2022, has Whitefish actually come close to addressing that need or building any of those housing units?
Justin Franz They've tried, but no. Not long after that assessment, they put together a strategic plan. They formed a committee to try and work with the local housing authority to get all that work done, but they haven't had a lot of success. That plan, it called for something called inclusionary zoning.
Mara Silvers What is that?
Justin Franz So it basically requires that a certain percentage of any new housing development be reserved for people with low to moderate incomes. And if the developer doesn't do that, they have to pay a fee. Bozeman has tried something similar, but that tool was sort of taken out of the toolbox last year during the legislative session when Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a law prohibiting exactly that.
Mara Silvers And how did Whitefish respond to that?
Justin Franz Not well. City leaders were pretty frustrated. And since then, Whitefish has thought about turning that old strategy on its head. Instead of punishing developers with fines and fees, they're considering giving them incentives to reserve a certain part of their housing development for low to medium income people, usually through something called deed restrictions. And that means the owner can only make a certain amount of profit when they sell it.
One developer has gone above and beyond what the city wanted. A development called Trail View is offering homes exclusively to local workers, that cost about half what a place here in Whitefish normally does. But even when fully developed, Trail View is only expected to have 58 homes.
Mara Silvers That does not sound like a lot. Didn't they need a couple hundred affordable units back in 2017?
Justin Franz Yeah, they needed about 600 affordable units back in 2017. Not to mention that this development is aimed at folks looking to buy their first home, not seasonal workers who are just looking for a place to rent. And remember those 600 affordable units? That was what was needed back in 2017, before anyone had heard of COVID-19, which sort of sparked a migration to places like Whitefish.
Mara Silvers So in some ways, I can see why this is happening in Whitefish, right. It's a beautiful part of Montana where everyone wants to live. But this is happening elsewhere across the state and country, too.
Justin Franz Yeah, it's a story that's sort of been unfolding for the last couple of decades. There's all these towns across Montana and across the American West, these cool little picturesque little resort communities that get overwhelmed by their own popularity. Suddenly, the characters that make these places special, and more importantly, the people who make these places work, they can't afford to live there.
Justin Franz I want to introduce you to a guy named Ed Doctor. He's Uriah's boss. And that housing crunch that's happening here in Whitefish, Ed's seen this movie before. Ed's this big, bearded guy, he's got a big personality, you know when he walks into a room. He's originally from the Midwest, but he headed West about 30 years ago in search of good skiing and a good time, bounced around the West, ended up in Colorado for a while.
Ed Doctor I moved here in the fall of 99 and opened the ski shop winter of 99 in December.
Justin Franz He's basically a successful ski bum. Back in the late 1990s he lived in a ski town called Winter Park. It's a few hours west of Denver. Back then, there were a lot of cool, locally owned bars and businesses, sort of like Whitefish, it felt really unique. Then this huge resort company swooped in and they just started buying up real estate.
Ed Doctor You know, after I left to come back five years later and I asked my buddy that was still there, I go, man, where did all these ski shops go, and these restaurants.
Justin Franz Ed says the character of the town changed entirely.
Mara Silvers OK, so Ed has seen this play out in a totally different town, in a totally different state. Does he have this kind of feeling, like a premonition, that this is what's going to happen in Whitefish?
Justin Franz Yeah, he does.
Ed Doctor You know, resort companies, they pay very close attention to towns like Whitefish. They see we have a very successful town, very successful businesses.
Justin Franz And he's not alone in that feeling. Ed and a lot of other people fear that the same forces are at work here in Whitefish. As someone who's lived in the Flathead Valley for a long time, I can tell you that the rumor that some big ski corporation is going to swoop in and buy the ski hill, it comes around every winter. But Ed says the housing shortage that we're seeing right now and the cost of living increase, he thinks all of these things are finally lining up so that rumor will become a reality.
Ed Doctor So, larger resort companies come in, build housing or buy housing and then end up buying all the businesses. And you're going to see that pretty much in every ski town you go to. They don't look like they're corporately owned, but they definitely are corporately owned.
Mara Silvers I hear that Ed might not like the idea that something's corporately owned, but why does that actually matter to him?
Justin Franz Well, for one, people like Ed worry that that's going to kill the town's character, that it's going to become 'Any-Ski-Town' USA. But secondly, he's worried that Whitefish could get even more expensive than it already is. And busier. Again, it's all going to make it a lot harder to live here. There's a concern that pretty soon, firefighters, teachers, nurses, the people you need for a community, they won't be able to afford to live here either. And in some instances, that's already happening. A lot of the people I know have already moved to nearby towns like Kalispell and Columbia Falls because it's cheaper.
Mara Silvers After the break: how COVID-19 made an already strained housing situation way, way worse, and what locals like Ed are trying to do about it.
Welcome back to Shared State, I'm Mara Silvers.
Tiny ski towns across the West have been grappling with how to hold on to their unique character as they gain attention and people flock there. And today we have reporter Justin Franz.
Justin, you've been living in and covering growth in one of these ski towns, Whitefish. When did that town start to actually feel like it was changing?
Justin Franz The issue of affordable housing and Whitefish, that's an issue that's been brewing for well over a decade, at least as long as I've been here, and a lot of steps have been taken to try and address it. There's the establishment of the Trail View Development, the planning committee and the creation of an inclusionary zoning program that was later nixed by the state. But those are things that happened before 2020. Then came something that changed everything.
Justin Franz The pandemic changed two fundamental things. First, everyone wanted to get outside. And second, that remote work is absolutely on the rise.
Justin Franz People started to be able to work from wherever they wanted and people wanted to work in Whitefish. People discovering Montana is something we've seen a lot over the past two years. Places like Missoula and Bozeman and the Flathead Valley are super attractive right now to people who want to live in a beautiful place and bring their old jobs with them. As a result, the real estate market here has just exploded, especially in places like Whitefish.
Mara Silvers I mean, as somebody who grew up in Montana, I feel like there have been stories about these popularity surges for decades and decades, but 2020, without a doubt, was honestly like nothing I'd ever seen.
Justin Franz The summer of 2020 was busier than people anticipated, and 2021 was even crazier, and it didn't help when Good Morning America came to town promoting tourism.
Mara Silvers Oh no.
Justin Franz Not long after that segment aired, like less than an hour, the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau put out a press release. They said they were not looking for that kind of publicity, and when they heard about film crews in town, they quickly reached out to try and reshape the piece to tell people how they could travel and recreate responsibly and specifically to be a friend of the fish as they like to say and sing.
[singing] "... a friend of the fish. If you want to do the things that we all miss ..."
Mara Silvers That does not sound like the type of press communication that you'd normally hear from a group that's trying to promote tourism.
Justin Franz They're supposed to be trying to attract visitors, right? But it was just becoming too much. Even the shoulder season is getting busier than ever because, remember, it's not just tourists who are coming, it's new residents. Home prices have skyrocketed here over the last couple of years. Median home prices went up from about $350,000 to over half a million in Flathead County, and it's even worse in Whitefish itself.
Mara Silvers OK, so home prices are just going through the roof. What's happening with the rental market?
Justin Franz In some instances, homeowners who have been renting a home to someone, they've decided to cash out and put their places on the market, leaving more and more people looking for rentals in a market with fewer options. And that's not the only thing putting stress on the rental market here. The number of short term rentals on Airbnb and VRBO has also increased dramatically.
Dylan Boyle And it really is a threat to our town, the proliferation of short term rentals.
Justin Franz Dylan Boyle is the executive director of the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau. He's a numbers guy.
Dylan Boyle So for perspective, in 2014 we had 31 active short term rental listings in the 59937 zip code. So that's the whole Whitefish zip code. Now we have more than a thousand.
Mara Silvers That's just a gigantic jump. I mean, 31 to 1,000 short term rentals for people who are just visiting.
Justin Franz Yeah, Dylan says the jump in short term rentals has had a huge ripple effect on the community, too. It's not just taking away homes from locals that they could live in. It means more and more tourists can stay here as well.
Dylan Boyle You know, short term rentals are also causing a lack of resident housing to some degree, which contributes to a workforce shortage because some of them have eliminated leases for local residents who want to live and work here year-round.
Justin Franz And that puts pressure on everything: local services, local infrastructure, a local business, you name it.
Mara Silvers OK, so in a nutshell, it sounds like people flocked to Whitefish, and the cost of just about everything went up.
Justin Franz Pretty much. Unless you already owned a home in Whitefish, good luck finding one now. It's literally why my wife and I moved to Columbia Falls a year ago. We could have purchased a rundown shack in Whitefish, but not much more. And it's even worse for renters. People like Uriah, the bartender at Montana Taphouse who moved into his van last summer.
Uriah Rosenzweig It makes it unavailable for the service industry folks like myself and my coworkers to to be able to live in Whitefish. It's just the cost of housing has gone up. I've seen a lot of friends leave their service industry jobs because they just can't afford it, it doesn't make sense here anymore.
Justin Franz Like I said earlier, anyone who spent time in Whitefish the last couple of summers, they'll tell you it was busy, very busy. Ed Doctor At the Montana Taphouse, he said it was almost too busy.
Ed Doctor It was up, I would say, 40 percent across the board May through September. Mind numbing, you know, it's crazy. My parents, kind of old, and they were here every day helping. My dad is 82 years old busing tables. I would have never expected this town to be this busy. You know, not now. You know, maybe in 20 years from now,
Mara Silvers if Ed had to have his 82 year-old dad helping him bus tables, it sounds like he doesn't have enough workers to keep up with this business. How is he attracting employees?
Justin Franz Ed says his employees do make pretty good money. They make anywhere from $12 to $18 an hour. And with tips that can go up to $20 or $30 an hour. And during really good months, like during the height of the summer, he even shares some of the profits. But even that wasn't enough to get all the help he needed in the summer of 2021, and Ed places the blame squarely on the lack of housing.
Mara Silvers Is Ed an outlier here, or do you know of other places where this is happening in town?
Justin Franz It was the same down the street to the Buffalo Cafe, known to locals simply as the Buff. It's a beloved local diner that's been in Whitefish since the 1980s.
Justin Franz I spoke with the owner, Alex Maetzold.
Alex Maetzold I do all the boots on the ground, front of the house, management ...
Justin Franz Alex's parents opened the cafe.
Alex Maetzold Correct. Yep. So we're second generation ownership ...
Justin Franz In some ways their story is a lot like the mythology that Whitefish is built on. Alex's dad was traveling around the West, ended up in the Flathead Valley, fell in love with the place and just stayed,
Alex Maetzold And he took it over and turned it into the Buffalo Cafe. And so, yeah, we're in the 40-year range for our business and trying to get another 40 out of it.
Justin Franz Traditionally, summer doesn't start in the Flathead Valley until one of two things happens. The Fourth of July, or the Going-to-the-Sun Road opens in Glacier National Park. But in 2021, Alex noticed that his restaurant was busier than ever and it was busier earlier than normal in June and even May. And that hectic pace continued right into fall.
Alex Maetzold So that was different, the longevity of it. Where usually you're kind of getting yourself ready for a, you know, a three month race. And now it really was more like four to five months.
Mara Silvers How did that affect Alex's business and the traffic at his café?
Justin Franz I mean, business was good, but Alex said a lot of locals and a lot of regulars just gave up going out to eat all together because they could never get a table. Like many places around Whitefish and around the country, Alex also had trouble finding staff to work the Buff. He put the blame squarely on one culprit. Again, the lack of housing.
Alex Maetzold Our help wanted signs, gosh, they hung up on our building way longer than they ever used to. You know, instead of a week or and at least some candidates, we wouldn't even have people come in. You know, three weeks would go by not one person would come in for a well-paying chef's job with good hours.
Mara Silvers OK, so this is happening for Alex and then for Ed. What about all the other local businesses in town? How are they doing with staffing?
Justin Franz Those help wanted signs, they were up all over town, and it wasn't just bars and restaurants. I also talked to the owner of Nelson's Ace Hardware. It's a family-owned hardware store along U.S. Highway 93.
Mariah Joos Now what we're finding is that we're not getting people back in the door who want to come to work. Partially, that is because Whitefish is hard to live in.
Justin Franz This is Mariah Joos. For the record, when I first moved to Whitefish a decade ago I lived above Mariah's garage for a few years. Maria was born and raised in Whitefish, and she says it's really hard to see what's happening here.
Mariah Joos We have traditionally had a community that is stratified, that has all of the levels, and we are losing massive chunks of a part of that community because they can't afford to live here.
Justin Franz She's worried that her seventh-generation son won't be able to afford to live here himself if nothing is done about this.
Where do you see Whitefish in the next 10 years?
Mariah Joos Vail, Sun Valley, Jackson Hole, where there is no local community anymore. That anything exists is only for those who parachute in from outside. As a local, it makes me really sad. It doesn't serve any of us, regardless of where you come from, to have a community that only serves a really high income population, it doesn't serve any of us who are interested in having a community long term. It doesn't allow for an influx of diversity, of thought, of income of any sort. It becomes insular. It becomes only about the money that people can spend and that's not a community.
Mara Silvers OK, so this whole situation sounds pretty dire. And from what you were saying earlier, the supply of affordable housing just isn't there. What are some of the solutions that are being talked about in the community, if any,
Justin Franz I want to take us back to Ed Doctor, that ski bum turned business owner at the local bar.
Justin Franz During the pandemic all of the forces that Ed was worried about changing Whitefish forever had been turned up to 11. The change he feared coming in the future suddenly seemed immediate, it was now. And he had a decision to make.
Mara Silvers What was that?
Justin Franz He had to figure out how to deal with that change with the real estate market in the Flathead Valley burning red hot. He briefly thought about selling the restaurant and making a pretty good return for his investment if he sold the bar. He wouldn't have to worry about staff in the restaurant or making gallons and gallons and gallons of chili on a Friday night, which is what he was doing recently when I talked to him. Or he could keep the restaurant going and try and do something about his workforce shortage.
Mara Silvers So his dilemma is basically whether to see this problem is unavoidable and just do something that's financially beneficial to him or to try to challenge that problem and maybe keep his business going?
Justin Franz Exactly. Ed started talking to friends and he started thinking about those 1,000 or so homes that are being used as short-term rentals listed on websites like Airbnb and VRBO. He wondered what if you could take some of those homes and instead of filling them with more tourists, you filled them with local workers. Ed actually owns an Airbnb himself. So for starters, he took that short-term rental off the market and just rented it at a cheaper rate to some of his employees.
Ed Doctor To me, I would rather have these people that are part of our community now stay a part of our community. I wouldn't want to make my bartender drive home at one or two in the morning all the way to Eureka in the winter. That just doesn't seem right.
Justin Franz Then he started talking to more people, his friends and coworkers, about this idea of getting workers into vacation rentals at affordable rates. He wanted to expand what he was doing beyond his own efforts to house more workers. So he got to work,
Ed Doctor And I've had people come to me since and offer me homes to rent so I can have them for my employees. And it really dawned on me that, OK, we got to, we need to do something [like] this on a bigger scale, you know.
Mara Silvers This makes me think back to that employee, Uriah, the guy who moved into his van. Did he ever get out of his van?
Justin Franz Yeah, he started actually renting from Ed.
Uriah Rosenzweig I was paying 500 bucks a month to live in Kalispell, and now I'm back here. What would be 900 bucks a month, I pay seven [hundred], Ed subsidizes the other two. There's no way I could live in Whitefish right now on what I make for nine hundred bucks a month. Absolutely not, sir.
Justin Franz Before long, Ed filled up all of the properties he could on his own by renting from others and having his employees live there at a subsidized rate. He was able to make this happen for half dozen people and about four properties. By paying the full price out of pocket he was taking a loss, but he was able to keep his workers on board and living in Whitefish. Then Ed started to think, what if more businesses did this? What if they scaled it up? What if they formed a co-op of sorts that could take houses off the short-term rental market and get those keys into the hands of local workers? That's how the Whitefish Workforce Housing Project was born.
Ed Doctor We have a campaign out there where we reach out to property agency management companies and businesses that are involved, with a little poster by their register just asking second-home owners and vacation-home owners in Whitefish if they consider renting to local businesses instead of tourists for six months or 12 months.
Mara Silvers So Ed's trying to scale this thing up one rental at a time. In practice, does this mean that people who own a second or third home in whitefish are just turning around to rent to ski bums and bartenders?
Justin Franz Exactly. And Ed says the next step is to make that program even bigger and to make it sustainable across Whitefish. To do that, he'd need to get the city or nonprofit to help subsidize that rent.
Ed Doctor We're not asking for a discount. We're just asking for your homes. We need them bad. And if we can establish a fund to subsidize this rent, it would allow every employer to file for certain money.
Mara Silvers I mean, I really want to be all like, rah rah like go Ed, this sounds like a great idea, but is this really altruistic of him or is it also a business decision. Like this money, at least for right now, it's coming out of Ed's own pocket. So is this coming from a real desire to save these workers, or is it just him reasoning that it's cheaper to subsidize their rent than lose all of his workers?
Justin Franz I would say it's both. Ed said he really does want to help these employees, but it's also a good business decision for him. After all, if he doesn't have any workers, he can't keep his business open.
Mara Silvers I'm guessing other business owners are probably thinking along the same lines.
Justin Franz Yeah, filling vacation rentals with local workers isn't a new idea, actually. In fact, a similar effort was launched in Big Sky back in 2017.
[news story]: Platforms like Airbnb make it so easy for property owners to make money off their investment, so she set out to create a similar program, but for local renters.
Ed's learning from ideas like that, and he thinks he can launch the same thing right here in Whitefish. For the last few months, he's been telling anyone who will listen to him about this idea. When I last talked to Ed, he said the workforce housing project had basically become his full time job, and he started to get more support for it. I called him in late December after he'd had a meeting with city officials and the local housing authority. He said they told him they wanted to help out and see what they could do and if they could find some money to help subsidize this.
Ed Doctor I mean, you know, we're up against time here and we know anything done with the housing authority is going to take time, with the city is going to take time. So we're just we're trying to figure out how the heck to get this program up and running by March.
Justin Franz He also said he was starting to talk to local businesses about other creative ideas, like maybe raising money from customers by having them round up their bill or adding a few bucks to their tab. All that money would go towards local housing. Ed hopes that he could start something like this as early as the winter of 2022. I talked to city officials shortly after that call with ED, and they said they do want to work with him, and quickly. They know that this is a big problem and they're willing to talk to anyone.
Mara Silvers I mean, it sounds like Ed and his supporters are super passionate, but do you think that they can actually do it? Like, can they solve Whitefish as affordable housing crisis?
Justin Franz That's hard to say. That 2017 housing study said Whitefish needed more than a 1,000 new housing units before 2020, most of them are affordable. But that was before the pandemic. The city is expecting to come out with another housing needs assessment in 2022. And no one knows exactly what that's going to say, but most people assume the need will be even greater than before. Local officials say that housing assessment will help guide what comes next. But Ed Doctor, he's not waiting around.
Ed Doctor I believe if we don't get ourselves a thousand units within the next couple of years, we'll be hurting. And I think we're not too late right now. I really hope to God that there's enough people listening and want to be involved to house our characters, basically. You know, if we don't house our characters, we lose our character. That's the truth.
Justin Franz Ed has a steep road ahead of him, and he's not alone. Other groups like the Whitefish Housing Authority and the Whitefish Housing Plan Steering Committee, they're working on trying to solve this, too. And just recently, the City Council passed an ordinance to put more zoning restrictions on medium-term rentals. However, those restrictions won't go into effect for a year. But Ed thinks something needs to happen now to hold on to that mythology that Whitefish was built on. The idea that anyone can come up here and scratch out a life for themselves, for a season or for a lifetime.
Mara Silvers Shared State is a production from Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio. This episode was reported by Justin Franz. You can find more of his work at Montana Free Press. It was edited by Nick Mott, produced by Nicky Ouellet and hosted by me, Mara Silvers. We had editorial assistance from Corin Cates-Carney, Brad Tyer and Nadia Faulx. Fact checking by Jess Sheldahl. Our sound designer is Gabe Sweeney and a special thanks to Ross Bridgeman.