Guest Column

Whitefish is at an Impasse on Affordable Housing

If you support housing in Whitefish, then you should support the Mountain Gateway development at the base of Big Mountain Road

By Nathan Dugan

Conversations and articles about the lack of housing in the Flathead Valley have been a constant presence in our lives since the beginning of the pandemic, and Whitefish may very well be the epicenter of these discussions. Recent planning board and city council meetings have been contentious, and a host of social media accounts have been created on both sides of this issue proposing very different solutions. 

No development in recent memory has drawn as much ire as the proposed Mountain Gateway at the base of Big Mountain Road. For those not in the know, this development would provide a total of 270 apartment units with 32 of those being deed-restricted affordable for those making between 60% and 80% of area median income as defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. On the opposite side of Big Mountain Road, the developers have proposed to build 48 condominium/townhome units. After hearing community feedback on the project, they have offered to donate the 8.8 acres and possible approval to build 48 units to the Whitefish Housing Authority, Northwest Montana Community Land Trust, or another similar nonprofit organization to develop the 48 proposed units as affordable housing. 

There have been three major multi-family housing developments proposed in Whitefish since 2013. One of these was denied by the city council, and one was approved but regrettably not built. Mountain Gateway would be the third. There are, however, some common threads that tie these developments together. These threads are not exclusive to Whitefish and come up nearly anywhere in the United States where multi-family housing is proposed. Traffic, changing the character of the neighborhood, and safety are concerns that kill housing proposals throughout the country, and especially in Whitefish. Homeowners’ associations wield a power over city governments that prevent progress. 

There are no easy solutions to our housing issues. I completely understand the fear of more people living in Whitefish and the gut reaction to oppose any and all development. We fear more people crowding our trails, standing in our lift lines, or ordering beers in front of us at bars. But those of us who weren’t born here didn’t consider those impacts when we chose to move here, and because we’re privileged enough to afford to buy homes here or were lucky enough to get here when homes were still relatively affordable, we consider ourselves to be more deserving of these amenities. 

Those who purport that a nonprofit solution is an answer to our prayers do not have a basis in reality. Nonprofit solutions have made great accomplishments, but also face significant challenges given the current cost of land and building. The Whitefish Community Foundation as a whole raised $4.2 million last year, which is a great achievement that does not come close to meeting the housing needs of this community, even when free land is provided and even if the entirety of that money was able to be used for housing initiatives. I for one would love for there to be more nonprofit affordable housing built in Whitefish, but those donating money for the tax benefits would need to quadruple their contributions to build it fast enough to outpace private developers, and I hope that they do. These conversations amount to nothing more than a stall tactic to prevent the construction of multi-family housing in favor of single-family homes, which are perceived to improve property values. That a 9-acre donation that would build at least 48 affordable, likely ownership units is so easily brushed off by those in opposition to Mountain Gateway who in the same breath advocate for nonprofit solutions to our housing crisis is proof that they don’t quite understand the depth of this crisis. 

If you support housing in Whitefish, then you should support Mountain Gateway. Not only will it provide at least 80 affordable housing units, both for rent and for purchase, but it will provide a supply of rental housing that has not existed in Whitefish for some time. When I first moved to Whitefish in 2015, there were not many rentals to choose from and this problem is even worse in 2022. The alternative is what we’ve experienced lately. Angry service workers, shuttered restaurants, and an increasing lack of community cohesiveness that is not what Whitefish is known for. 

Nathan Dugan is a Whitefish homeowner who advocates for integrated affordable housing.

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