Those who make the median income in Flathead Valley – a bank teller, a customer service representative, a small business owner – can’t afford to buy a house. And while money, credit and access to information remain barriers, the biggest challenge they may face are the stereotypes of others who live here.
As the Flathead region has experienced tremendous growth over the last decade – the population grew by almost 15 percent between 2000 and 2006 – affordable housing has shifted from a national to a local problem. An increase in newcomers, whose incomes don’t derive from the local economy, has created a strong demand for high-end housing, consequently driving up the average home costs in an area where income has remained relatively stagnant.
The region is losing its affordability. But only to those who rely on the local economy for their living.
Advocates for affordable housing say there are ways to alleviate Kalispell’s growing housing crisis. They include regulations that require developers to include affordable housing in new subdivisions, financial incentives for developers of low-income housing and bonuses for developers who increase the density of their developments with lower-income housing. But in Montana, a state that has long favored private property rights over zoning and land regulations, those solutions can be a tough sell.
Especially when stereotypes surrounding affordable housing play a role.
“There are stereotypes here that affordable housing means poor folk, people who are looking for handouts, unworthy,” Cal Scott, president of the northwest Montana association of realtors, said. “They shouldn’t be entitled to what I’ve worked for. Get a job. Be responsible. Those who don’t have, don’t have because they haven’t lived the right kind of life; they’ve made too many mistakes.”
“Well, they’re wrong. The people we need to live here are the ones who can’t afford to live here.”
Joe Gilmore, 27, and his wife, DeLacey, 23, want to raise their two children in Kalispell. Their family is here – Joe grew up in Kalispell; DeLacey in Ronan. Joe’s business, Quality Hardwood Flooring, is here. But numbers just don’t add up.
“We’re a young family trying to better ourselves, but we just don’t have the opportunity here,” Joe said. “I’ve invested in a business here, but still can’t afford a home. And we’re probably better off than most.”
The couple said banks are hesitant to loan them money because Joe’s company is only about two years old, leaving them short of the two or three years of tax returns to prove consistent income. And DeLacey said she has sensed other hesitancy. “I’ve walked into a bank before just to get information, and when they see me with two small children and I’m wearing informal clothing, it was instantly apparent they weren’t interested in loaning me any money.”
Joe’s sister Jennifer Stipe, 25, and her husband Clinton, 24, work as a bank teller and customer service rep at Teletech, respectively. They said their experiences with Realtors and banks have been positive, but even with their dual-income, the housing search has been a challenge.
For people like the Gilmores and the Stipes, the biggest obstacle is what they can make for wages here and the lack of housing available in that price range. Affordable housing is defined as safe and sanitary housing that a household can get and maintain by spending no more than 30 percent of their total gross monthly income. That means a household that makes Kalispell’s median income of $36,444 annually can afford to spend $911 a month on housing. Scott said a search on the Realtor’s listing last week found only 93 rentals and eight homes available in Flathead Valley in that price range.
In an effort to increase that number, the city has been pushing for and accepting subdivisions that include a wide range of housing types and costs. Tom Jentz, city planning director, said high density housing like Starling, a recently approved 3,000-home subdivision, has everything from condos to large family townhouses in an effort to provide affordable housing across economic classes. But misconceptions still provide resistance.
Mayor Pam Kennedy said while many groups throughout the community work to help with affordable housing there is generally strong resistance when high-density subdivisions – a must to keep land costs lower – are proposed. “When we talk about a high density subdivision to have affordable homes, all too often that’s next to another larger lot subdivision. Those homeowners often come forward and speak in opposition because they believe the area would become run down and end up being a ghetto.”
Clinton Stipe said small duplexes in new subdivisions have provided the most promising leads for he and Jennifer. “From our perspective, adding housing like that is a good thing. It opens up options for us and a lot of other people like us, and the range of housing and people in there give them a good feeling, a sense of stability.”
But for both the Stipes and Gilmores, if availability of affordable housing and wages don’t find a way to meet, life in the Flathead Valley might become impossible. “If it becomes a choice between living a decent life in a nice house or having children, then we’d have to consider moving,” Clinton said.
Housing costs and availability have put strain on local businesses already desperate for employees, and the city’s failure to keep young professionals would devastate the area, Kennedy said. “If we aren’t able to attract or keep young people we’ll be in big trouble very soon. And one of the largest parts of that is being able to offer affordable housing for first-time homebuyers.”
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