Real Estate

Grassroots Effort in Whitefish Seeks to Build Affordable Housing Units

At a recent community meeting, employers and residents gathered to discuss potential solutions to workforce housing shortage

By Skye Lucas
Homes in Whitefish on June 17, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

On the morning of July 26, Whitefish business owners, city officials and concerned citizens gathered in the beer garden at Montana Tap House with a critical agenda in mind: workforce housing.

Ed Docter, owner of Tamarack Ski Shop and Montana Tap House, Casey Malmquist, president of KCM Enterprises Inc., and Toby Scott, a Montana-based record producer and Whitefish Planning Board member, are leading the private effort to bring affordable rentals to the Whitefish area.

Docter, Malmquist and Scott outlined their vision of the private effort to the 70-plus people who attended the town meeting. That vision involves the formation of a private entity, composed of business owners and others, who would purchase land to create units for the Whitefish workforce.

The business plan seeks a private-public partnership with the Whitefish Community Foundation and Whitefish Housing Authority. Local business owners also hope to work with city officials when navigating issues with zoning changes, permits, impact fees and funding. City officials and locals alike believe solutions addressing the workforce housing shortage must be multifaceted, involving both the private and public sector.

Through the collaboration, Docter hopes for developers to try to build at least 100 units by December. Docter points to Malmquist’s past experience addressing the Bakken oil field housing shortage, where he helped build housing for thousands of oil-field workers in a matter of months.

Docter envisions the private association will operate as a nonprofit to incentivize business owners to invest. It is critical that rent be affordable, less than $1,000 a month, so that workers can live here and contribute to the local economy.

Local establishments, like the Montana Tap House, are estimating they will need triple their current number of employees to meet the demands of tourism during the first week of December, when Whitefish Mountain Resort is expected to open. Business leaders also fear for the future of Whitefish moving forward.

“If a working-class person can’t find a place to live, well, you’re never going to have that working class that you need,” Docter said. “If there’s no workforce housing, who will go to the Remington or the Tap House? I’d hate to see Whitefish turn into another ski town out West.”

Past government efforts include the Legacy Homes Program (LHP), established in 2019 with the goal of building housing for the Whitefish workforce. The program facilitated inclusionary zoning by requiring 20% of new housing units be permanently affordable and mandated that developers pay a fee in lieu of providing units.

But since Gov. Greg Gianforte signed into law House Bill 259 this past April, inclusionary zoning tools such as requirements used by LHP are now banned. LHP can no longer require developers to deed-restrict portions of new subdivisions or multi-family projects for long-term affordability.

At a Whitefish City Council meeting on Aug. 2, Planning and Building Director David Taylor detailed new LHP incentives that will go into effect on Sept. 16.

Workforce housing has been on the minds of city officials for years now; the city’s Housing Needs Assessment (HNA) conducted in 2016 resulted in the LHP. According to the assessment, an estimated 980 units were needed by 2020 to address the workforce housing shortage in Whitefish.

As of now, the Whitefish Housing Authority’s website lists less than 100 affordable units. It also estimated an additional 300-plus residential units were proposed and underway, but most units were market rate.

The 2016 assessment also surveyed Whitefish-area employers and asked if they would be willing to assist with workforce housing. Only 14% expressed interest, 21% communicated reluctance to provide housing support and 65% indicated they were uncertain.

Since the HNA was published, it appears attitudes among employers may be changing, considering the unresolved shortages and impending consequences.

 “It is up to us,” Docter said. “The only way I can save my business is by doing this, and there’s a lot of really good ways this could work. We could set a standard for other places, too.”

Docter expects an entity will be made official in the next week once he and other locals leading the effort meet with attorneys to sort out the logistics of forming a nonprofit or collaborating with an existing one.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the group hopes to build at least 1,000 units by December, but the correct number is 100 units by December.

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