New Report Shines a Light on Whitefish’s Affordable Housing ‘Crisis’

Study shows high home prices are pushing families, workers out of Whitefish

By Dillon Tabish
Housing in Whitefish. Beacon File Photo

Outsized home prices and scarce rental opportunities are forcing many families and workers to live outside of Whitefish at a growing rate, making it harder for local businesses to retain and find employees and changing the demographic makeup of the community, according to a new study.

Rees Consulting, Inc., a Colorado-based firm, conducted surveys and interviews and gathered other research over the last six months for its in-depth assessment of Whitefish’s affordable housing needs. The report, which was presented Dec. 5 at a public meeting hosted by the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce and city leaders, affirms that the community is facing a worsening situation in its affordable housing.

Though Whitefish is a highly desirable place to live, it’s increasingly difficult for many of its residents to actually reside in the resort town. From 2000 to 2010, roughly 170 couples with children left Whitefish. These families included 350 kids between the ages of 5 and 17, according to the report.

Roughly 56 percent of Whitefish’s year-round workforce commutes into town, according to the report.

Kevin Gartland, executive director of the Whitefish chamber, said the report shines a light on the full scope of the issue and represents “the first step in the community’s effort to address the growing workforce housing crisis.”

The average home sale price in Whitefish has increased nearly 7 percent annually for several years while the average rent has jumped 10 percent annually. Meanwhile, average local wages have not kept pace, increasing annually by just 2.5 percent. More than 50 percent of the community’s jobs are in tourism-related industries, which tend to be lower-paying positions that are subject to seasonal fluctuations. For example, retail positions, which make up the second largest percentage of local jobs, pay an average wage of less than $27,000 annually.

Among the local workforce, roughly 80 percent of prospective buyers are seeking a home priced under $300,000. Yet the median asking price of new condominiums in town averages roughly $400,000, and newer single-family residences are selling for roughly $450,000. As a result, “many young families instead purchase in Columbia Falls or Kalispell,” the report states.

Year-round rental units are also in short supply. Property managers have reported less than 2 percent vacancy in recent years, while more rentals are now on six- to nine-month lease terms to capture the peak prices during summer, according to the report. If the current trend continues, the percentage of roommate households will likely increase as fewer residents will be able to afford to live alone, the report says.

Whitefish’s homeownership rate remains higher than average — 65 percent — but it declined 4 percentage points from 2000 to 2010. A loss of community volunteerism is common in resort areas with similarly high housing costs that force the bulk of employees to live elsewhere, the report said. Emergency services, public schools and other entities that rely on a strong volunteer base could increasingly feel the effects, the report said.

Whitefish has also seen a greater number of retirees or second homeowners move into town in recent years.

These changes are placing an added burden on local businesses to find and retain workers. Roughly 225 year-round jobs and 140 seasonal jobs went unfilled in Whitefish this summer, according to the report. Roughly one-third of employers said they lost a worker or had someone decline a job offer in recent years because they found employment closer to their residence.

The reduction in local workers owning homes in their community has implications for both the long-term vibrancy of the town and the sustainability of its downtown and other local businesses, the report said. As the year-round resident base decreases, businesses must rely more strongly on peak visitor seasons.

The report estimated that 980 housing units — roughly 400 for ownership and 580 for rent — are needed in Whitefish to address the current workforce housing shortage and keep up with future demand through 2020. Of those, roughly 605 units should be provided at more affordable prices, meaning roughly $160,000 to $310,000 for households earning between $40,000 and $75,000 annually. Of the rentals, roughly 62 percent of the new units should be priced between $400 to $1,000 a month to accommodate the local workforce.

The report says Whitefish is “conservatively projected” to add roughly 400 jobs through 2020, which will only intensify the need for more affordable housing.

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