Priced Out

As demand for home rentals in the Flathead outpaces supply, many are forced into desperate situations while the threat of displacement looms

By Maggie Dresser
A house of colorful foam blocks. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Even before Allison Leake’s landlord refused to renew the lease on the two-bedroom townhouse she rented in Whitefish for $1,000 a month, she was already looking for other housing options out of suspicion that her situation was too good to be true in the current market.

Leake started looking for housing in early April, almost two months before her lease ended on May 31.

“As I got into April and nobody had an opening and things were going quickly on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace and no one I knew had any leads, I started getting pretty worried,” Leake said.

By May, Leake couldn’t find anything for less than $2,000 a month, no matter what the unit was, and she feared she would have to crash with friends until she could find something. Now, she’s staying in a converted shed that she calls a “dry cabin” with no plumbing or heat on a friend’s property in between Whitefish and Columbia Falls. The friends added the structure to the property and were planning to eventually transform it into a tiny home to be used for a short-term rental or guesthouse.

“I have to go inside the main house to shower and use the restroom,” Leake said. “It’s a little bit primitive … It’s actually really cute, but at the end of the day I’m living in a shed, and for me, it’s kind of disheartening.”

At 39, Leake has a good job at Whitefish Mountain Resort in group sales where she manages weddings and catered events.

“I have an impressive resume, I’m well connected in the valley, I have a great job, I live within my means and I don’t have any debt,” Leake said. “I should be able to afford a place here. Even with all of those things done right, I can’t find a place to live.”

Allison Leake stands in front of her dwelling, an unfinished shed-like structure sans plumbing or insulation in a friend’s yard in Columbia Falls on June 25, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Rental scarcity isn’t new to the valley or the state, but the abrupt influx of new residents in the Flathead since the pandemic began has further strained the problem.

In 2019, Flathead County’s rental vacancy rate was 7.9%, ranking 21st out of Montana’s 56 counties, according to Montana Department of Commerce data. Statewide, at least 35.9% of people in occupied units were paying a gross rent of 35% or more of their household income, and the median gross rent was $810 in 2019.

But in the last year and a half since the pandemic began, new residents have swarmed the Flathead, sending demand through the roof while outpacing the supply of available homes and spiking prices.

Whitefish has historically been the least affordable city within Flathead County, and had a median home sale price of $611,500 in May, but City Manager Dana Smith says the affordability concerns are now saturating the whole valley.

“Back in the day if you couldn’t live in Whitefish you could live in Columbia Falls or Kalispell,” Smith said. “The entire valley is struggling with the increase in housing (demand).”

In 2017, Whitefish launched a strategic affordable housing plan, but Smith says the pandemic amplified the problem, and after legislators this year quashed the Whitefish Legacy Homes Program, Smith is hoping locals don’t become displaced. Valley businesses have had ongoing worker shortage issues, partially because staff can’t find any housing.

Property management companies across the valley are seeing a particularly high demand for rentals.

“There are a lot of out-of-staters and a lot of locals that are needing housing at the moment, and unfortunately the price is a lot higher than what they want to pay,” said Mike Soules, a property manager at Integrity Property Management, Inc. in Kalispell.

Soules completely filled the first building of a brand new apartment complex off of Meridian Road and already has the second unfinished building half-full, all without advertising.

At the end of June, Integrity had no rental property listings available, and Soules says everything that is advertised is instantly taken.

“It’s been pretty crazy and hectic,” Soules said.

Soules says there have also been a number of move-outs. He has eight scheduled for the next month, many because of an increase in price or because owners are taking back their rental properties to either sell or live in.

Residential area near downtown Kalispell on June 21, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Depending on the property, Soules said rents have increased anywhere from $50 a month to $300, with the more dramatic price increases in Whitefish.

At the Samaritan House, Executive Director Chris Krager says some people ended up at the homeless shelter because their former landlords either sold their rentals or increased rent. One resident at the Samaritan House had rented the same unit for almost five years when he received a 90-day notice that his rent would increase by $350 a month.

“It was an increase I couldn’t handle,” he said.

He began searching for housing for himself and his 17-year-old son after receiving the notice, but with a limited budget of a $750 a month, he can’t find anything in the valley.

“There’s absolutely nothing,” he said. “I’m disabled and I’ve applied for all of the subsidized and low-income housing … I’m just at my wit’s end. It’s getting very depressing and discouraging.”

Now that he and his son have been at the shelter for 90 days and he’s had no luck, he’s thought about leaving the valley. His son only has one more year left of high school and he wants him to graduate with his friends, but the housing scarcity might force them out.

Krager says the average length of stay at the Samaritan House has increased by roughly two weeks because of the inability for people to find housing, and people are starting to consider more desperate options.

“We’re hearing that they’ve tried everything close and we’re starting to hear that they’re willing to go out of town to farther reaches from where they are working to find housing, which requires you to drive farther or depending on a vehicle that might not be dependable,” Krager said. “It pressures folks to make desperate choices.”

Those desperate choices are radiating across a range of income levels, and while the lack of inventory is impacting long-time locals, it’s also affecting those trying to move here.

Luke Rumage received a job offer as a designer for an architecture firm in Kalispell and moved to the valley this spring, but he’s been living in a hotel for the past two months as he searches for more permanent living quarters.

“It’s been hard,” he said. “There are a lot of property management companies and every single one of them doesn’t have an opening right now.”

Rumage has been paying $2,000 a month to stay at Glacier Ridge Suites in Kalispell, a hotel meant for extended stays, but as the summer becomes busier, he has to be out by July 16.

Moving from an area outside of Washington, D.C., Rumage is accustomed to paying high prices, but he’s never had this much trouble finding inventory.

“I am not an underprivileged person,” Rumage said. “I have the financial ability to get an apartment if there is one available. I’m not looking for affordable housing; I’m looking for housing.”

Finally on a promising waitlist, Rumage plans to move into a new apartment complex that was supposed to be finished in June. But if construction continues to get delayed, he will have to try and find a new hotel to live in during peak tourist season until the complex is finished.

“The fact that there isn’t any housing out there doesn’t just affect the people here but it affects the people who are trying to move here and be a part of the community,” Rumage said.

Luke Rumage, a designer who recently moved to the area for a job, sits in the living area of his extended-stay hotel room in downtown Kalispell after no success in finding another place to rent on June 22, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Developers are trying keep up and add inventory as municipalities have approved hundreds of units this year alone. And while many developments are in the construction phase, several have only been recently approved and are in the earliest stages, which means it will take some time before they’re move-in ready.

There are more than 200 units projected at Eagle Valley Ranch, 200 apartments in the pre-construction phase at Silverbrook Estates and hundreds more in various stages of development in Kalispell alone, all of which will likely be priced at market rate.

In Whitefish, Smith says the city is working on its affordable housing initiative, but the market is creating challenges. The city is looking to hire a long-range planner and housing coordinator, a new position, and officials are also focusing on short-term rental enforcement and brainstorming ways to limit renter evictions.

“We’re seeing people being displaced and it’s disheartening to see,” Smith said. “One of the biggest issues we’re facing right now is housing.”

Leake is still hopeful she will be able to find housing this fall, which has become her deadline since her temporary home doesn’t have heat. But she has considered leaving a job and place she loves if she can’t find housing.

“If this doesn’t get better in the fall, then I really have no option than to look at relocating out of the valley,” Leake said.