Renters and Homeowners

Mail-in ballots are in the hands of some 4,000 Whitefish voters

By Mike Jopek

Whitefish city leaders are once more advocating for the creation of an affordable housing task force, hoping to produce results. Over time I’ve learned to trust leaders like Richard Hildner and Frank Sweeney.

If Hildner and Sweeney are re-elected next month, many remain optimistic that something good will happen to help assure that those working in town can actually afford to rent or buy ownership in this great Whitefish community.

Currently the fine people who make the decisions on the Whitefish City Council are homeowners. That’s not their fault, many of us bought into the market earlier, back when it actually was affordable.

All homeowners or renters may not be voters; even freeholders own property locally yet claim residency in other jurisdictions, counties or states. Some live and vote elsewhere for tax reasons, some just live elsewhere and have investment property locally.

Katie Williams the youngest Whitefish candidate said at a forum, “I am a hardworking Montanan who leads and helps develop a growing business. I am boots on the ground and I want to live in Whitefish and I am bringing that perspective of a lot of people who are going to be footing the bill 30 years down the road.”

Williams currently rents a home with housemates. That’s a common story in Whitefish where more people rent homes than own homes. Williams wrote, “I am fortunate and I live in my family’s house that was purchased in the ‘90s with two other roommates. This unique situation allows us rent affordably.”

A lot has changed in our nation since renters were not allowed a vote. Yet years back, Flathead County chose not to poll renters on planning issues surrounding Whitefish.

Having served on past planning boards, housing authorities, and housing land trusts I’ve some insight into the politics of housing. And yes, housing is a political decision. When teachers, firefighters, or baristas cannot afford to live in the community they work, that’s one huge and local planning decision.

Last decade the planning board, witnessing the building boom years coupled with a lack of affordable housing, recommended that Whitefish mandate some affordability into major subdivisions regulations. An ideological council rejected that proposed regulation saying that increasing density alone would work. It has not.

Housing land trusts allows communities to hold ground leases under homes, keeping land and improvements affordable into perpetuity. Plenty of resort communities across the nation use similar concepts but Whitefish has yet to find much political will to act.

There were some federal voucher rentals in Whitefish, limited federal tax breaks to investors building affordable apartments, a couple nonprofits building homes or offering small subsidies to fill affordability gaps, and good rent-controlled units for select seniors at the Whitefish Housing Authority.

A new housing task force will ferret out these facts once again. That’s a great step.

Yet real decisions come from the council and their willingness to act on whether to use coveted urban renewal funds to help fix the housing crunch or expand partnerships with the Housing Authority, or require developers to participate through subdivision regulations.

Politics is about trust and relationships. With homeowners like Hildner and Sweeney, and renters like Williams at future decision-making tables, maybe Whitefish can ease the cost of living for those working here, living here, and raising a family. Renters, homeowners and freeholders are all a part of the fabric of Whitefish.

Mail-in ballots are in the hands of some 4,000 Whitefish voters; hopefully most choose to mail-back a ballot and be counted.

It’s time younger voters acknowledge the power of the vote and how a young and articulate renter like Katie Williams can help lead the next generation of Whitefish. Just vote like it’s your town.