Guest Column

Whitefish Should Get Out of Its Own Way on Accessory Dwelling Units

Or its housing inequities will continue to proliferate

By Nathan Dugan

Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are a hot topic lately, as they well should be. The Kalispell City Council recently approved changes to its code, and the City of Whitefish’s Strategic Housing Plan Steering Committee recently greenlighted proposed changes to send to the City Council in an effort to create more affordable housing options in town. 

Unfortunately, both of these efforts do not follow well-established best practices for spurring ADU development, and in their current form will result in relatively small numbers of ADU construction which will prevent much of a positive impact on the local housing market. 

Efforts to tie ADUs to affordable housing in Whitefish are laudable but unfortunately have proven not to work elsewhere, and certainly will not work without significant monetary incentives to homeowner-developers that are not currently part of the discussion. In fact, the proposed changes in Whitefish currently have no rules or enforcement mechanism to ensure that the units are rented affordably in the first place. 

In and of themselves, ADUs represent an effective unregulated form of affordable housing, as units are often rented below market rates due either to personal and familial relationships, or the more caring nature of mom-and-pop landlords compared to corporate landlords. 

If Whitefish, Kalispell, or any other municipality in the Flathead Valley wants to meaningfully improve the rental housing supply for local workers, then they would be wise to alter their city codes in ways that have proven to spur ADU construction and thus increase the supply of this important source of affordable housing. 

Owner-occupancy requirements, off-street parking requirements, and conditional review processes should be removed from ADU codes. ADUs should be able to be built by right, following guidelines established by the city for their creation. This has not only proven to increase housing supply, in close proximity to transportation and jobs while reducing the environmental impact of new construction but gives property owners increased rights over the use of their property in ways that they see fit, with limited government interference.   

In addition to removing the above “poison pills” from ADU code, cities can cheaply incentivize their construction by homeowners by waiving standard development and impact fees. Portland, Oregon has seen a 20-fold increase in the rate of ADU construction since waiving its system development costs for ADUs in 2010, which typically totaled $8,000 – $12,000 per project. This financial incentive alone was a psychological carrot that should not be ignored by Flathead Valley municipalities, even if these fees are lower here. 

With few exceptions throughout the world, ADUs will only be built in meaningful numbers when cities release their regulatory stranglehold over their development. The importance of ADUs in providing smaller, more affordable housing options to meet the needs of young workers, the elderly, single people, couples, and small families alike cannot be overstated.

Whitefish should get out of its own way on ADUs, or its housing inequities will continue to proliferate, and longtime locals will continue to be forced out due to a lack of housing options. The proposed rule changes as written, will fail to accomplish the City Council’s stated goals on affordable housing. It is time to be courageous, tear off the Band-Aid, and fully embrace successful policies on ADUs that have been thoroughly tested elsewhere. 

Nathan Dugan lives in Whitefish.

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