Whitefish Committee Refines Housing Roadmap at Final Meeting

Based on the current timeline, in November the Whitefish City Council will have a chance to review and adopt a new housing roadmap as part of the process to update its strategic housing plan

By Mike Kordenbrock
Whitefish and Big Mountain on June 30, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Whitefish Strategic Housing Steering Committee held its final meeting on Sept. 13 related to the city’s ongoing work to update its strategic housing plan.

The “Refresh” process, as it’s been called, began in June and will continue when the city council has a chance to review the recommendations and goals set forth by the committee and consultants who helped guide the process. The aim is to have a draft housing roadmap document ready in October. The city council will have a chance to review and adopt the new roadmap in November.

The final meeting of the steering committee was meant to further define priorities for the city’s housing roadmap, and review some of the community input and housing needs data collected.

The committee is made up of city staff, city councilors, business owners, nonprofit leaders, and community members.

A draft report related to the committee’s work was released in August. The report’s findings showed that the city had exceeded its construction goals for new housing from 2016 through 2021, but the units were generally too expensive for the city’s housing needs. The city wound up with 1,069 units of housing, compared to a projected need of 980. However, of the housing units built, 60% needed to be priced below market rate, with only 7% meeting that standard. The city needs an additional 1,300 units of housing by 2030, with 75% needing to be priced below market rate, according to the report.

Wendy Sullivan, of WSW consulting, and Seana Doherty, of Agnew Beck, helped guide committee members through discussions, with some of the focus on better understanding opportunities for collaboration between private, public and nonprofit entities by identifying the ways those groups could contribute to different goals. Members also broke out into small groups to identify timelines and key players in moving forward with priority strategies to improve the city’s housing situation.

Among the dozens of priorities are hiring housing staff at the city level. The city is currently in the process of replacing Riss Getts, a housing coordinator and long-range planner who worked her last day in early September. Getts had been involved in the refresh process, but City Manager Dana Smith said that the city is not anticipating any related delays to the process. The city is reviewing the job description and wants to begin its recruitment process to replace Getts before the start of October, according to Smith.

Early on during discussion, committee member Rhonda Fitzgerald cautioned against the potential for misinterpretation for one of the draft documents that identified a need for housing for people making 250% of the area median income. Fitzgerald said she raised the issue out of concern that it could be misconstrued that the city was in some way prioritizing the needs of higher-income residents. The 250% area median income housing need was part of a “bridge” graphic showing housing needs across the income spectrum.

During the discussion, one meeting attendee, Mallory Phillips of the nonprofit Shelter WF, noted that when people in higher income brackets are priced out of the housing market, there can be a trickle-down effect where those people wind up occupying rentals that are needed by people at lower income levels.

A portion of the meeting also sought to brainstorm and identify some of the strengths, challenges, opportunities and threats the city faces when it comes to meeting its housing goals. Strengths identified included the fact that the housing need is well known, and public awareness is pervasive. The group also pointed to public-private partnerships, and a proven track record of successful community projects as strengths. Among the challenges identified were economic uncertainty, finding locations for community housing, misinformation and both infrastructure and transportation. Opportunities included the chance to create innovative housing types and engagement with younger people, as well as a chance to leverage the refresh process into county-wide conversations about housing. Threats identified included large projects misrepresenting their community value.

Chamber of Commerce Director Kevin Gartland suggested something that he felt could fall into multiple categories.

“Community values and the way we see ourselves. Our vision of ourselves and our community and the standards we have to live up to to maintain them,” Gartland said. “I think it can be both a strength and a challenge. We’re resistant to change because people believe we’re a perfect little community and everybody should be able to own that three-bedroom house on Somers Avenue. And that’s not the world we live in. And I think we have to adjust our expectations a little bit. Not give up on our image and our pride and those things, but take a look at what Whitefish looks like 30 years from now, and accept that, rather than say how we would look at it 30 years ago.”

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