Whitefish Council Indicates Support for Rental Assistance Pilot Program

If the funding is approved, the Whitefish Workforce Assistance Fund could begin accepting applications early next year

By Mike Kordenbrock
Whitefish City Hall on May 20, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Members of the Whitefish City Council largely showed support Monday night for a proposal in which the city would provide financing drawn from its affordable housing fund for a program to provide rental assistance for qualifying members of the Whitefish workforce.

Called the Whitefish Workforce Assistance Fund, the pilot program was proposed by Housing Whitefish, a nonprofit that works on housing issues with the Whitefish Housing Authority, and the fund also has the support of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce. Housing Whitefish would also be in charge of the fund, including reviewing applications that would be accepted likely on a quarterly cycle.

The council had a chance to learn more about the proposal and ask questions during a Sept. 18 work session, with some of the discussion carrying over into the council’s regularly scheduled meeting that night. The program could launch early next year. Housing Whitefish will review the city council’s feedback and come back with a revised proposal, which the city council will likely discuss at a subsequent public meeting before making a final decision on whether or not to go forward with providing as much as $200,000 in funding for the pilot program.

In order to qualify for the Whitefish Workforce Assistance Fund, an applicant must make under 120% of the area median income, must pay more than 30% of their income towards rent, must work an average of 32 hours a week or 1,600 hours a year in a job located in the 59937 Whitefish zip code, and must currently live in Whitefish, or be looking to move to Whitefish to be closer to work or to accept a job. There are some exceptions to that criteria, including a lower threshold for work hours in the case of single parents.

The program, as proposed, would cap assistance at $4,800 a year for households, with payments not to exceed 25% of their rent or push them below paying 30% of their income in rent. The assistance funding for tenants participating in the program would be sent directly to the landlord. In a letter sent to the council outlining the program, Housing Whitefish Executive Director Daniel Sidder wrote that the goal of the program is to help full-time employees live and work in the Whitefish area, with the fund directed towards helping people retain housing and get into new rental units. The fund is not for emergency housing needs, utility payment aid, or relocation services, according to Sidder’s proposal. At the meeting, he also explained that funds would not be available to go towards things like security or pet deposits on rentals.

During the city council work session, Sidder said that in conversations within the community, he has heard repeatedly that people want to continue seeing others have a chance to put down roots in Whitefish and become part of the community in a meaningful way. But for some people, the cost of living in Whitefish has become a barrier to even getting a foot in the door as they look for better job opportunities.

“Mainly, we want people to invest their time, energy and talents in Whitefish if they’re working here,” Sidder said.

A housing needs assessment published in the summer of 2022 that was used for the development of the Community Housing Roadmap identified a need for 1,300 new units of housing by 2022, with 75% needing to be below market rate. Between 2016 and 2021, the city added 1,069 units of housing, but only 76 units were below market rate, according to the same assessment.

In a separate proposal letter sent to the council, Sidder was clear that the program is intended to address immediate issues as long-term solutions continue to come forward.

“We don’t see this program as a long-term solution to our housing challenges in Whitefish. We do, however, see this as a shorter-term program that can assist our workforce while more affordable units are being built,” Sidder wrote.

The pilot program is modeled on a similar program in the ski town of Winter Park, Colo., that has been in place since 2017. If the city were to fund the program at the full level requested, that would leave an estimated $300,000 in the city’s affordable housing fund for fiscal year 2024. City Manager Dana Smith said that as long as the city continues collecting the mills it has already levied for that fund, it will continue to bring in about $315,000 a year. So far, she said there are no other pending requests related to the fund, saying that talks over a proposed short-term rental conversion program had slowed down. The proposal also calls for Housing Whitefish to undertake fundraising to procure another $100,000 in financing in the first year.

Asked about that aspect of the financial plan, Sidder told the council that Housing Whitefish does not yet have any money in hand from the business community, but conversations to this point have indicated that some businesses are strongly interested in providing financial support, and Sidder said Housing Whitefish would soon be sending off proposals to some of the bigger employers in Whitefish; however, Sidder said he first wanted to hear from council.  

Smith, the city manager, noted that in reviewing other similar programs, “cities have to imitate it to get the buy-in to prove that it works. And then as time goes on, you’ll see that businesses can help support a larger portion and the city’s contribution can go down.”

There were some suggestions among the council about tying city funding to the securing of funding from businesses. Mayor John Muhlfeld pushed back firmly against that idea during the work session.

“We need to get something up and running,” he said. The mayor also put forward the idea of providing $100,000 in funding for the program’s first year, and assessing how it’s going before providing the remainder of the money.

Councilor Rebecca Norton expressed her support for the program, but also said during the work session that she has a problem using tax dollars to fund it when it could be seen as supplementing someone’s high rent, and that the money could be used for other efforts to slow down the bleeding in the city’s housing market.

Katie Williams, the chair of Housing Whitefish’s board of directors, pushed back against the idea that it will be easy for landlords to price gouge, saying that they would have to gamble on the front end without knowing if a tenant would be utilizing the program, since the fund requires a lease in order for a tenant to be eligible. Sidder also said that it would be more costly for landlords to create a vacancy by raising rent, and that in some cases he has heard from landlords who see this as a potential opportunity to hold onto long-term tenants who might not be able to afford rent increases, which some property owners say are necessary to keep up with increased property taxes.

There were also some concerns about using the 59937 area code, since it could result in people outside the city limits benefitting from the program. Smith, the city manager, noted that the 59937 area code was used for the development of the city’s housing roadmap.  

In explaining his support, Councilor Andy Feury laid out his bigger-picture view of how the housing situation in Whitefish can be improved.

“It’s not going to solve all of the problems, and I think that we all need to understand that — everyone involved in the situation. Because I think every time something comes up everybody throws everything else at the wall and is like ‘Well yeah what about this?’ and ‘What about that?’ And the reality is, I think if we haven’t learned anything over the last 20 years, we’re never going to solve the whole problem with one silver bullet, it’s just not going to happen. Each little stride we make forward helps people out,” Feury said, adding that he thinks the reality is that this program could help 40 to 60 households.

“So, 30, 40, 50 units at a time, we can solve the problem,” he added.

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