The Whitefish Way, Revisited

Yep, there’s a heck of a problem with “affordable housing” in Whitefish

By Dave Skinner

Several weeks ago, the Beacon’s Tristan Scott did a nice long-form story about Whitefish’s “Affordability Gap.”

Yep, there’s a heck of a problem with “affordable housing” in Whitefish. As Mr. Scott learned from North Valley Hospital’s Catherine Todd, only 36 percent of NVH staff live where they work. That’s amazingly bad, considering health-care jobs pay comparatively well.

So, what’s the core of the problem?

Whitefish – or what is kindly called “The Whitefish Way.” It could be called the “Aspen Way,” the “Jackson Way,” the “Vail Way,” the “Steamboat Way” – take your pick.

Like too many “amenity” towns, Whitefish is what happens when self-serving political mavens warp development policies into an irrational mishmash. That mishmash in turn accelerates a transition toward precisely the two-tiered, peasants-and-plutocrats “community” everyone claims to hate, especially me, as I’m old enough to remember when Whitefish was real – an authentic, organismic community with a diverse business base and equally diverse citizenry.

What the heck happened? Well, watching city council proceedings one evening, I got a hint: A prominent citizen got up to testify on the topic of final approval of what I think was a small condo/apartment proposal next door to her home. It was duly zoned, but the woman nonetheless asked the council to impose conditions that would satisfy her landscaping concerns. She had her very own landscape design sketches showing what needed to go where, not on her property, mind you, but next door.

I found her shameless disregard for any investments, rights or concerns other than her own coldly fascinating, even entertaining. But over the coming months I came to understand she wasn’t an anomaly. Rather, she was, and remains, a leader of Whitefish’s most committed political faction, the messmakers.

If these messmakers have any concept of property rights, it seems to be strictly a one-way deal, where certain property rights are more equal than others – summed up as: “Not only is mine, mine, but everything I see is mine, too. Even if you have a mortgage on it, pay taxes on it, it’s mine. And, even if nothing is really mine, well, it’s still mine.”

The messmakers deserve due credit. It is they who successfully voted in like-minded city councilors who enacted ordinance after ordinance, creating ridiculous regulatory over-reaches like the “doughnut” fiasco, critical areas, dark skies, infill requirements, density “bonuses,” architectural review – all part and parcel of the Whitefish Way.

But are the false fronts behind Safeway that much of an achievement? Isn’t the current fetishistic exposed-beam fad, stone veneer and all, just a bit overdone and contrived? And, why expect housing to be “affordable” when developments done the Whitefish Way are burdened with bureaucratic costs imposed nowhere else in the Flathead?

Yes, builders investing in Whitefish plan for all the expected delay, the political kabuki, the sheer nattering nitpickery of the Whitefish Way – but they either pass those costs on, or build elsewhere.

Worse, no matter the project, the amount and duration of “hassle” never varies much, meaning a high (and fixed) “hassle cost.” What’s the correct capitalist response to maintaining good returns against high fixed-cost situations? Simple … build the most expensive unit-cost project the market can stand!

Even long-term believers in the Whitefish Way are beginning to grasp why Whitefish can’t get “affordable” projects going in order to plug today’s “affordability gap.” Long-time mayor/councilor Andy Feury, who has been there at seemingly every step along the Whitefish Way, conceded the true core issue when he declared Whitefish needed to “change our mindset [to be more] open to having density.” Yes, you may enjoy the irony.

Nonetheless, Mr. Feury voted along with the rest of the council to fund yet another wasteful affordable housing study plus a task force, expected to cost $60,000 in tax-increment funding.

The sad part is, a study won’t help close the “affordability gap.” Consultants will never suggest the one and only thing that can make housing more affordable in Whitefish, the council taking positive action. What might be a positive action? Maybe if four city councilors say one simple syllable together: “Yes.”

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