Whitefish to Tackle Affordable Workforce Housing Master Plan

Members of the public invited to open house and workshop to discuss affordable housing crisis

By Tristan Scott
Housing in Whitefish. Beacon file photo

Facing a pressing need to solve Whitefish’s affordable workforce housing shortage, a coalition of business owners, community leaders and city officials will begin crafting a master plan to unsnarl a decades-long problem that is approaching crisis levels.

Having already completed a Workforce and Affordable Housing Needs Assessment to identify possible solutions, the Whitefish Affordable Housing Task Force will begin the next step of the process on June 14 at 5 p.m. with a public open house and workshop at Whitefish City Hall.

Working in concert, the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, community members, business owners, and representatives from the Whitefish City Council will spend the next six months crafting an Affordable Workforce Housing Master Plan. The proposed deadline to present the final draft to council is Nov. 6.

Those attending the June 14 open house will have a chance to hear key findings from the 2016 Whitefish Area Housing Needs Assessment; discover what other mountain towns are doing to house their workforce; and learn about incentives, regulations, public-private partnerships, public and nonprofit initiatives, and potential funding sources for workforce housing.

The issue of Whitefish’s deteriorating housing stock emerged as a prominent element identified in the City’s 1987 Urban Renewal Plan, and as it continues to persist after nearly three decades, city officials are determined to settle on a solution.

Representatives from the tourism and service industries, health care, and retail services have all provided input that illustrates the same point: The local labor shortage is symptomatic of rising housing costs and a diminishing inventory of affordable rental units.

Seasonal workers face a scarce rental inventory, while homeownership remains out of reach for young professionals looking to enter a market that towers above the average household income.

Housing costs in Whitefish are outpacing Flathead County and the state, displacing critical workers who fill the jobs driving Whitefish’s tourist-based economy. Meanwhile, professionals are forced to live outside of the community in which they work.

Rees Consulting, of Crested Butte, Colorado, has been hired to create the housing plan after completing a needs assessment that showed Whitefish needed to add roughly 1,000 housing units to its inventory by 2020 in order to compensate for the current shortage and map out future needs.

Whitefish Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kevin Gartland said a diverse slate of stakeholders has come to the table to help inform the task force’s meetings. Now that the scope of the problem has been assessed, crafting a plan is the next step.

“It is an issue that has been a long time coming, and we are at a critical point,” Gartland told the Beacon. “We are talking about every category of income and every type of job on the spectrum. These are not just dishwashers. These are nurses, firefighters, entrepreneurs, professionals earning good incomes. But if you are making $70,000 a year and can’t buy a house for less than $400,000, it is still unaffordable to you.”

According to data from Robert Horne, Jr. of Applied Communications, LLC, a local community-planning firm, the affordability gap continues to widen.

Horne noted the average home price in Whitefish is nearly twice that of a home in Flathead County as a whole. According to the data, in 2015 the average price of a home in Flathead County cost $235,500, whereas the average price of a home in Whitefish cost $410,795.

Whitefish also has some of the highest housing costs for renters. According to U.S. Census data, the average renter pays $812 a month in Whitefish, whereas the average renter in Kalispell pays $731.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.