A Cry for (Housing) Help

Amid a deepening affordable housing crisis, nonprofits are struggling to find answers for families in need of homes

By Skye Lucas
Robert Zalewski paints trim on a Habitat for Humanity house build in Lakeside on June 18, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“I was kicked out of my house.”

“I’ve got nowhere to park the camper.”

“I can’t afford to move my belongings.”

“Where do I go?”

These are the types of calls Habitat for Humanity of Flathead Valley (HFHFV) receives every day. 

“It’s so frustrating,” said Rebecca Wilson, community outreach coordinator for HFHFV, which is the local Habitat affiliate. As one of the people working behind the scenes of the nonprofit organization, Wilson caught her breath, holding back tears, while speaking at Habitat For Humanity’s ReStore in Kalispell, which helps fund the local chapter through reselling recycled furniture and housing supplies.

The median sales price in the valley, Wilson said, has gone from $329,000 to $475,000 in the last year. She also said two-by-fours have gone from $3.76 up to $7.81, the cost of renting has gone up almost 40% and people are calling Habitat every day. 

“The number of callers seeking affordable housing per day are what we normally get in a month,” said Wilson. 

Although Habitat for Humanity is constructing five new houses in Lakeside, remodeling two townhomes in Columbia Falls and recently decided on Somers as the next site for its build cycle, Executive Director Bob Helder said, “It’s not enough. We have so many people that need housing.”

Affordable or not, finding housing was already an issue in Flathead County before the pandemic with an extremely low 1.2% vacancy rate. But now, the absence of affordable housing is more broadly rippling through the community as grocery shelves go unstocked, restaurants operate at reduced hours and bakeries can’t open because workers have nowhere to live. And while locals might connect that businesses are struggling because workers can’t find housing, tourists likely won’t. 

Helder said affordable housing is at the root of many issues in the valley, and schools are not exempt: “Bigfork needs teachers, but the teachers can’t commit to the next school year because they have no place to go.” 

Nonprofit leaders say expanded unemployment benefits can’t be solely blamed for an inability to fill available jobs, and that the fact is not enough people can afford to live and work here. 

For Chris Krager, executive director at Samaritan House, the affordable housing crisis “feels very real sitting across the table from a single-parent family, who has saved four or five paychecks while living in the shelter, and they still simply cannot find a place to rent.” 

“That’s the face of who’s being affected by this affordable housing crisis,” the homeless shelter director said.

Cliff Frank measures a plank of siding for a Habitat for Humanity house build in Lakeside on June 18, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The absence of affordable housing is not unique to the valley. The nation, too, is facing a shortage of building supplies and lack of housing inventory. Adding to the challenge is the surge of new residents from what locals sometimes call a “COVID migration,” as well as landlords discovering that they can get a lot more money through vacation rentals than renting to locals. All of which is producing a perfect storm in the Flathead Valley.  

One in eight locals spend more than 50% of their income on rent, according to Habitat for Humanity. The rule of thumb is that renters should pay about 30% of their income on housing costs.

“Do I pay my rent? Or do I pay for my car? Do I buy groceries? Or do I take my kid to urgent care?” Helder said those are the choices that families make when they are one crisis away from a food bank or knocking on Habitat’s door.

Habitat for Humanity’s charitable mission, providing affordable housing for low-income families, is the same today as it was when the nonprofit organization’s Kalispell affiliate was founded 30 years ago. But it’s far more urgent now.

Habitat partners with homebuyers who fall between 30-80% of the median income to help build their new, affordable homes by incorporating a hands-on approach through the organization’s “sweat equity” strategy, which requires new homeowners to contribute at least 500 hours of construction to Habitat projects. This approach, in addition to homeowner education courses and a no-interest mortgage, contributes to stability and affordability.

The Flathead Valley affiliate is funded through donors and the ReStore. 

“Every $100 spent at the ReStore is one square foot of a home,” ReStore manager Adam Tunnell said. As a donation-based resale store, switch plate covers, rugs and fancy toilets are among the diverse treasures one can find for a low price at the store. 

“I always say if you’re going to start your remodel or anything like that, come check the ReStore first, and see everything from furniture to appliances to construction material,” Helder said. 

Another contributor to Habitat’s mission is the Gianforte Foundation, which has funded the construction of townhomes for the Kalispell affiliate since 2019, in addition to funding projects for seven other Habitat chapters in the state. 

The affordable housing crisis is daunting, but Helder believes solutions are possible. 

“I know we have smart people in this community,” he said. “And if we pull ourselves together, get rid of politics, and come together to create a dream, ‘What can we create?’ That’s the conversation we need to have.”

That conversation is already ongoing among a diverse assorment of stakeholders, including government leaders, although Kalispell City Councilor Ryan Hunter wants to see more. 

“One of the first things I wanted to do on city council when I was first elected in January 2020 was propose an affordable housing plan, and unfortunately a majority of council did not support that,” Hunter said, adding that he’s hopeful the council will agree on a plan moving forward. 

Jamie Quinn, executive director of Flathead Food Bank and a board member of the Community Action Partnership Northwest Montana (CAPNW), believes the community can take on a Housing First model, which is an assistance approach that prioritizes permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness. 

“If you get people in housing and then provide supportive services, people thrive,” Quinn said. “You can’t get a better job if you don’t have a home address or somewhere to shower. It’s pretty hard to stay sober if you know you’re going to sleep on the street later that night.”

Quinn’s previous hometown in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, went to a Housing First model a couple years ago. 

“With the Housing First approach, Lancaster became the first county in the country to have a functional zero chronic homlessness and a functional zero for homeless veterans,” she said.

With a grant through the Montana Healthcare Foundation and in partnership with Logan Health, CAPNW studied the community costs of chronic homelessness and found it’s $65,000 annually per individual. 

“Folks who are chronically homeless wind up engaging with different support agencies,” CAPNW Deputy Director Cassidy Kipp said. Those costs include temporary housing, health care, food stability, mental health and other supportive services. 

“Once we get someone stable housing,” she said, “think of how much we would save as a community.”

Quinn said there aren’t enough local resources to assist with landlord and tenant rights and inform renters what a legal eviction notice should look like. 

“Many people who have been kicked out right now don’t know what their rights are, and so they just have to take that notice and go with it, whether it’s a legal eviction or not,” Quinn said. “We’re missing infrastructure with housing authority.” 

As a landlord herself, Wilson understands the profitability dilemma, but she urges the community to think about the bigger picture. Raising rent would make Wilson more money, but she knows that it would cost someone their stability and security, children their education and more down the line for the community at large.

“Yes, I went into that to make money, but is raising rent building a community or am I taking away from it?” she said. “You really have to think of it on a much bigger scale. We are not on this planet alone. You’re not in this valley alone.” 

While Helder and Wilson encourage people to put on their creative-thinking caps, they also welcome the community to put on a hard hat, too, and volunteer to build affordable homes. 

And on June 18, they did, bright and early in the morning. Volunteers from Fresh Life Church hammered on a roof and painted the back porch at the Lakeside homes. During orientation, Construction Supervisor Steve Tartaglino instructed volunteers on safety rules, assigned roles and reinforced the importance of Habitat’s mission. 

Robert Zalewski, one of the Lakeside homeowners, worked alongside the other volunteers painting his soon-to-be home. Although Zalewski was only required to fulfill 500 hours of “sweat equity,” Zalewski is close to completing 1,000 hours. 

“These homeowners work hard and it’s testament to the method,” Tartaglino said, pointing to the almost finished three-bedroom, two-bathroom home. 

Zalewski agrees: “I come out here every day, even just to see it. It’s hard to explain the feeling when you see your new home.” 

To make a donation or volunteer for Habitat for Humanity of Flathead Valley, go to www.habitatflathead.org or call (406) 257-8800.

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