Newly Formed Nonprofit Seeks to Confront Whitefish Housing Inequality

The group, Shelter WF, was founded in April and recently filled out its five-person board

By Mike Kordenbrock

On the night in February that Whitefish City Council was poised to vote on the divisive Mountain Gateway housing project, Mallory Phillips recalls driving home from work trying to stream the meeting on her cell phone as its service flickered in and out.

 Heading into the night, Phillips and her partner, Nathan Dugan, predicted that at least a few councilors would vote in support of the development, which would have added badly needed housing units to the city’s depleted inventory. After the votes were tallied, their hopes were tempered by reality: just one member of the council, Steve Qunell, had cast a vote in favor.

 Plans for the development at the base of Big Mountain Road featured 318 units of new housing, including 32 deed-restricted units, on 32.7 acres of land. The developer also offered to set aside land for a fire station, as well as additional acreage that a nonprofit entity could use to build affordable housing, amounting to what lead developer James Barnett said at the time totaled $8.5 million in benefits to the city. 

Even so, opposition to the project was significant. A group of neighboring community members formed a nonprofit, hired attorneys, and conducted their own traffic study to help bolster their arguments against the development, which they said would worsen an already untenable, dangerous traffic situation along Whitefish’s northern corridor. In some cases, residents threatened to withhold donations to local nonprofits.

The story of Mountain Gateway and its dismissal before council spurred Phillips and Dugan to form the new nonprofit Shelter WF. The organization’s website states that its intention is to “confront housing inequality in Whitefish and to empower grassroots political participation to create homes for all of us, not just the wealthy.”

In explaining Shelter WF’s reason for existence, Dugan said the nonprofit wants to make the city’s development processes more accessible and easier for people to understand.

“And then also give people the tools to be able to participate in the process themselves,” Dugan said. “That’s primarily why we exist, is to bring other people into the conversation at city hall, because the people that come to city hall, it’s kind of the same characters that come to everything, right? It’s not representative of the entire community.”

 “I think for me, my biggest thing about all of that was just the human impact,” Phillips said of the Mountain Gateway decision. “Like a lot of times the way we talk about housing is so, what’s the word? It is sort of dehumanizing, right? We talk about like, the structures and the height and the this and that. And in my head it was like, ‘Do you know how many community members we could have housed in that?’ It was sort of heartbreaking for me when that happened because I think I had a little faith that councilors would look at it from that perspective.” 

The nonprofit’s efforts to include and educate people involve, among other things, an emailed newsletter, a frequently asked questions section on the website related to housing, action alerts, monthly brewery meetups, a lending library of literature about housing accessibility, and the opportunity for people to share their housing stories on the website. There’s also an online store that sells stickers that say, “It’s cool that you have a million dollars. I just want a place to live.”

The group also specifically formed as a 501c4 to have the opportunity to lobby before the Montana Legislature, according to Dugan.

Dugan, a physical therapist, is originally from Ohio, and has lived and worked throughout the northwest. He and Phillips currently live in Whitefish in a house Dugan owns. Prior to that they lived in Kellogg, Idaho. At one point in 2016 he and Phillips chose to live in a van as he was working as a traveling physical therapist. That period in their lives had them living in the San Francisco Bay Area for three months, and Bellingham, Wash., for another three months. Across those two places they witnessed housing crises play out in RVs that people had turned into their primary residences, and city council sessions where neighbors banded together to fight affordable housing.

 Eventually, they moved to Kellogg, where Dugan said he was able to purchase his first home with help from his family. Knowing that he received help with housing but that others can’t get it, is part of what motivates him.

 “I recognize that’s the reason that I’m able to live in Whitefish now,” he said.

Shelter WF recently finalized its five-member board, which includes Phillips and Dugan, Ellie McMann, Keegan Siebenaler and Leanette Galaz. Siebenaler grew up in Kalispell and got a degree from the University of Notre Dame in environmental engineering and energy studies. He works as the affordable home ownership project coordinator for the Northwest Montana Community Land Trust.

Galaz is a Whitefish resident and recent transplant with a degree in sociology and a minor in Italian studies from Stanford University. A mother of two, Galaz currently rents in Whitefish and works as a server, and according to her bio on the Shelter WF website, has previously worked in after-school programming in “historically oppressed urban neighborhoods.”

Alongside Dugan and Phillips, Shelter WF counts one more co-founder in Ellie McMann. McMann grew up in Whitefish before her family moved to Texas when she was 13. After her parents divorced, part of her childhood was spent living in affordable housing with her mother on Colorado Avenue as her mother earned a teaching degree. McMann moved back in September, but quickly determined she couldn’t afford to live in Whitefish.

 “I always loved Montana,” McMann said. “It was always my goal to come back.”

McMann and Phillips were childhood friends, and it’s those connections that have made advocating for more equitable housing policies so personal for Phillips. Although the Mountain Gateway development is just one of many recent, high-profile stories framing Whitefish’s ongoing housing struggles, Phillips, a fifth-generation Whitefish resident who works onsite part of the week at a therapeutic boarding school in Idaho, is also motivated by the consequences of the housing crunch for people that she grew up with. She described how many of them have been forced to leave Whitefish because of the cost of housing.

“For me, it’s grief,” she said of her feelings about the housing situation in Whitefish. “Because the way that I saw Whitefish as a kid was a place in which a lot of different types of economic backgrounds could live within the same neighborhoods. As a tiny child two of my best friends were all over the economic spectrum, but we all lived within a small range and we actually met riding our little tricycles around our neighborhood. And now when I see Whitefish it’s becoming very homogenous. Very few people that don’t have money can afford to live in Whitefish anymore.”

Dugan said that they consider the passage of Whitefish’s new accessory dwelling unit (ADU) ordinance to be Shelter WF’s first victory. It’s a policy he said he was advocating for even prior to the Mountain Gateway debate, and for which Shelter WF was able to generate letters in support from members and non-members. The ordinance frees up property owners from restrictions about where ADUs can be constructed and incentivizes placing deed restrictions for long-term leases to locals.

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