Closing Range

Chasing Unicorns

Whitefish once had affordable housing along with most of the rest of Flathead County

Well, I hear that the City of Whitefish is putting together an “affordable housing” task force. Like all those consultants didn’t work the last of multiple times around?

Well, if Whitefish, or Kalispell, or any Flathead community wishes to honestly address the need for “affordable housing,” I’ve got some suggestions – but before I make those, I’d like to remind everyone that back in Flathead’s Stone Age, before Al Gore invented the Internet and all those fancy “lone-eagle” or “footloose entrepreneurs” amenity migrants started cluttering things up, Whitefish had affordable housing along with most of the rest of Flathead County.

Yep, there was that trailer park tucked in the trees at the Big Mountain turnoff, and there was another good-sized trailer park next to the old North Valley Hospital (I remember when that was new). Both are gone, with no replacement.

Sure, at that time the railroad was in a long-term downsizing trend and mass commuting between the three cities hadn’t started yet – so for a long time, ending in about 1995, Whitefish was looking pretty ghostly around the edges. It was kind of affordable, even on “itinerant dirtbag” wages. Yep, some of it was pretty shoddy “housing.” Some still is, it’s just not “affordable” any more.

Next, I’d like point out where the most-pressing “need” actually lies, in the service sector. Our service sector, especially in relation to tourism, is seasonal, low-skill, low-wage and itinerant, split between “aspirants” and those just “stuck.”

But there’s a way to meet this need, which has been met in the past. Example? Sin City at Reserve and 93. Now, there’s an ideal location for concentrated, “affordable” housing. Sin City is right on two main transportation routes, so all the peasants there can jump in their clunkers and zoom (or chug) away to their dispersed points of employment at the appointed time without plugging up the transportation network, especially with the new bypass. Or, they can walk to all the new retail and professional employment that has grown into the area in the past 20 years. Or, take an Eagle Transit bus! Ideal!

Do we have other valley locations that might work? Sure … the empty parts of the Cedar Palace campus in Columbia Falls might make some sense (if C-Falls had an “affordable housing” crisis, which for some strange reason doesn’t). How about Whitefish?

Hmmm. What about the old Greenwood Park and hospital area? The Snow Bus runs by there! Could that possibly happen? Under a couple of conditions, maybe.

First, I’d appreciate it if the businesses whining the loudest about unfilled jobs would come clean about who is subsidizing whom. If workers can’t reside convenient to their work, the honest root cause is lousy pay. Conversely, calling for government grants, government subsidies or coercing “affordable housing credits” from high-dollar developers is just another way of scoring a subsidy.

It is high time the low-paying business community stops passing the buck. They need to put heads and wallets together, forming an investor pool to get something decent and solid built in the places where such housing is needed and is absolutely appropriate – now.

I’m not talking “worker housing” tied to employment. Rather, any pool should be a private business scheme aimed at making a fair profit, bankrolled by the business entities that will benefit. Rents wouldn’t need to be subsidized, as long as rents are reasonable, somehow matched to a decent “prevailing wage.”

Second, and most important, local governments need to structure planning processes that actually encourage the construction of affordable housing at the needed scale in the right locations. Period. How can that happen? Try saying YES once in a while. The need is there, everyone knows it, but nobody has the guts to say YES and tell all the naysayers to just get stuffed.

There is a screaming need (not a want) for solidly built, well-located but modest housing in this valley, preferably built close enough to the jobs needing filled that workers could also be customers. Yet here we are, after years of chasing unicorns, and there’s still no serious, decent, dignified solution.