Kate Berry says owning a house in Whitefish felt like a pipedream five years ago.
"We had searched for almost a year I guess, and everything that was in our price point was still out of our price point."
Berry pieced together a livable wage working full time for a nonprofit and waitressing at night. Her partner tended bar and rapped for a popular local band. But even together they couldn’t quite pull in enough for a down payment. Rentals kept falling through, and for a while, she says she wasn’t sure how her family could live and work in the town she grew up in.
"We are not low income. We are average income -- we are middle income -- and it's a problem when middle-income people can't afford to live in a town like this that they've called home for so long."
Then opportunity knocked. One of the dozen homes enrolled in the city’s voluntary deed-restricted affordable housing program came on the market. Berry pulled every string available to her and closed on the three-bedroom house with an airy, open kitchen within walking distance of downtown.
"At the end of the day our lives are better because we were able to get this house," Berry says.
Berry’s family isn’t alone. Whitefish needs 600 affordable rentals and homes by 2020 to keep up with current and expected growth, according to a workforce housing needs assessment commissioned by the city in 2016.
Between subdivisions about to break ground and proposed projects, the city has about 150 affordable units in the pipeline.
City staff, the Whitefish Housing Authority and members of the city’s Strategic Housing Steering Committee are hosting an open house Thursday night about the city’s affordable housing program, recently renamed the Whitefish Legacy Homes Program. They’ll answer questions about who’s eligible for affordable housing, what those houses will look like, when they’ll be available and what strategies the city is using to address its affordable housing shortage.
"It's a middle-income housing program, if you will, and that's what our town needs because frankly, the average sales price is multiples of the average income," says Ben Davis, who is the board chair of the Whitefish Housing Authority.
"This whole entire thing started from the Chamber of Commerce and other of the couple larger businesses in town that could not find people to work in the jobs that they have. And a big part of it was housing."
The Legacy Homes Program uses a number of strategies set forth in a strategic housing plan the city adopted in 2017 to increase the number of rentals in the $1,000-a-month range and homes-to-own priced between $185,000 and $279,000.
Whitefish City Manager Adam Hammatt says some projects are already underway, like converting a city-owned lot used for snow storage into affordable housing.
"So we're looking at doing 12 townhomes and about 22 apartments and so we think that's going to be a great place, really close to downtown, where we'll be able to capture an additional 34 units right by the employment core."
Another project just north of downtown is using federal low-income housing tax credits to build 38 new apartments.
Other strategies are more controversial, like a proposal that would require 20 percent of new subdivisions be price-capped for affordability.
Bozeman is the only other city in Montana with this requirement, called inclusionary zoning. Bozeman made inclusionary zoning mandatory at the end of 2017. By the start of this year, only eight units had been built under the regulations.
Developers there argued they’d end up bearing the cost of the regulations and that the policy would stifle growth, a complaint echoed now by builders and developers in the Flathead Valley.
Jessie Walthers with the Flathead Building Association says other aspects of the city’s plan will prove more successful than inclusionary zoning.
"More incentives for builders or either expedited processes or waivers or decrease in impact fees or other permitting fees I think would be a benefit."
Davis says Whitefish’s proposed inclusionary zoning, like Bozeman’s, offers incentives to help developers make up for the lower home values, like allowing denser subdivisions, requiring less parking and expediting permits. He says the city is in it for the long haul and that new homes built under the program will be priced below market value for qualifying buyers forever.
"It takes a few years to really produce kind of inventory and the kind of homes and products that really make that difference on the ground," Davis says. "So I think things are looking really bright, we're excited about where it’s going and it's going to take a little bit to work its way through."
There will be public hearings about the inclusionary zoning proposal before the City Planning Board meeting on Tuesday, March 19, and ahead of the city council meeting April 1.
Prior to that, the open house the city and its partners are holding Thursday about its Legacy Homes Program will also cover proposals on the horizon, like changing zoning laws to let homeowners rent out mother-in-law apartments or tiny homes.
The open house runs 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday at City Hall.