In 2003, I chaired the joint city-county planning board for the Whitefish area. The city and county each appointed four members and the planning board chose the ninth member.
Whitefish asked its joint planning board what to do about the shortage of affordable housing in the municipality. The planning board unanimously recommended that Whitefish plan for major subdivisions to build a portion of new homes permanently affordable to area wages.
The board spent years looking at planning options available to fast-growing resort cities. It recommended to the city that new subdivisions, with 10 or more homes, be required to build 10 percent of the dwellings affordable to area wages. New land divisions with six to nine units would work with the Whitefish Housing Authority on affordable dwellings.
To offset any loss to developer’s profit, the city-county planning board recommended that new subdivisions be allowed up to a 50 percent density bonus for development that included workforce housing.
The 2003 Whitefish council said no to the recommendation that major subdividers and developers of new land be required to build any smaller houses that are affordable for purchase by workers like teachers, firefighters, nurses, baristas, or police officers.
That council opted for a voluntary approach, which yielded several workforce units over the time. But had Whitefish adopted the joint city-county planning board recommendation, workers would be a part of housing plans and employees would today enjoy more homes permanently affordable for purchase.
Fast-forward to 2016 and Whitefish has the same dearth of homes affordable to the workers in town. In fact, owners of area restaurants and businesses are now calling it a crisis.
To address these concerns, today’s council allotted $60,000 to complete another housing needs assessment. It will augment the last assessment from six or seven years ago.
A good new task force has been formed to fix the affordable, workforce or seasonal housing crisis. The committee will undoubtedly make some recommendations to Whitefish in forthcoming months.
Some of those recommendations may include perusing federal grants for home ownership, more federally subsidized rental units, federal tax credits for developers that build rental units, a land trust, or dorms for guest workers.
Bozeman recently put up $200,000 of local workforce-housing levies to help a developer build a hundred plus rental units with the help of a statewide housing organization.
It’s no secret that the cost of land is the number one barrier to homeownership. Nationwide, community land trusts hold land and can offer homeowners a cheap ground lease on individual lots. The homeowner owns the improvements, while the trust holds the land.
At the first meeting of the New Year, Councilor Andy Feury spoke up as Whitefish allotted more money for another housing study, saying that the community has grappled with the worker housing issue for 20 years and has failed for 20 years.
Feury indicated that locals find increased density often unacceptable near existing neighborhoods and new development objects to inclusionary zoning, which includes some of that workforce housing. Feury noted how study, after study, after study end up in the same place.
The cities’ new housing assessment could easily help procure some federal funds or tax credits to help a private developer build a large number of rental units. They’d likely fill up fast. But then what?
Eventually Whitefish will have to find a local solution, even if it’s just a handful of permanently affordable and smaller homes on smaller lots, mixed amongst new subdivisions.
A whole lot of growth has happened in Whitefish since 2003 and the value of homes and rent has only skyrocketed. Today Whitefish faces those same and now bigger alternatives if it wants some affordability in local housing. Perhaps time has altered political perceptions.
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