The Whitefish City Council voted Monday night to approve an agreement that would provide $200,000 in funding for a pilot program intended to provide financial assistance for rent payments in an effort to help people who are full-time employees and live and work in the Whitefish area.
The pilot program, called the Whitefish Workforce Assistance Program, was proposed by Housing Whitefish, a nonprofit that works with the Whitefish Housing Authority. Modeled on a similar program in the ski town of Winter Park, Colo., that has been in place since 2017, the Whitefish program would provide up to $4,800 a year in assistance for qualifying applicants through monthly rental assistance, or first and last month rental payments required for moving in to a new residence.
Housing Whitefish is aiming to launch the program and have a website for applications go live on Jan. 15, 2024 and to start reviewing the first round of applications by March 31, 2024.
Among the criteria for eligibility is that a person make under 100% of the area median income, that they pay more than 30% of their income towards rent, and that they 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 either currently live in Whitefish or are looking to move to Whitefish. Those criteria are slightly different in the case of a single parent, in which case a person is required to work 20 hours a week or 1,000 hours a year. New residents can be considered with a letter from their employer, and consideration will also be given to people who work outside the 59937 area code but in a capacity that predominantly serves Whitefish residents. Housing Whitefish is also looking into making retirees and people with disabilities eligible for the program, in which case individuals would not have to fulfill the work hours requirement, according to Daniel Sidder, the nonprofit’s executive director.
The program is structured to use funding to help people retain housing or get into new rental units, but it does not provide funding for emergency housing needs, utility payments, relocation services, or security or pet deposits on rentals. Payments to help people enrolled in the program would be made directly to housing providers, including landlords. The program also does not pay for more than 25% of someone’s rental costs, and funding will be prioritized based on economic need.
One example provided by Housing Whitefish to the council to show how the program could work, described a hypothetical in which an individual was paying $1,300 a month for a one-bedroom apartment on a yearly income of $41,230. That person would be eligible for $269 a month to bring their rental payments down to $1,031 a month — equivalent to 30% of their income as opposed to the 38% they had been paying — with the rental assistance payments going directly to their housing provider.
A rental assistance program was among the actionable priorities identified in a Whitefish Community Housing Roadmap plan developed in the summer of 2022 to help address housing issues in Whitefish that have been driven by a housing market that has proven to be unaffordable for a considerable number of people who live and work in Whitefish or aspire to. All members of the council voted in favor of funding the program, with the exception of Andy Feury, who had previously expressed support, but missed the Monday night meeting with an excused absence.
Sidder, the executive director for Housing Whitefish, had previously presented on the program to the council during a work session in September, at which time members of the council generally expressed support for the idea, and provided some feedback.
At the time, Sidder described the program to the council as something that can help with some of the city’s housing issues until more progress is made on long-term solutions.
Based on the work session, and additional discussions with Housing Whitefish board members and community members, some changes were made to the pilot program proposal.
One surface level change was renaming the pilot program the Whitefish Workforce Assistance Program, as opposed to its original name of the Whitefish Workforce Assistance Fund.
More significantly though, Sidder told the council Monday night that after conversations with the Housing Whitefish board of directors, and community members, the program was retooled to limit eligibility on the upper end of the income spectrum to people making 100 percent of the area median income (AMI). An initial version of the program had capped eligibility at people making 120% of the AMI.
The council had also asked Sidder during the October work session about financial commitments from the business community, and Sidder had said there was strong interest from the business community but that he had wanted to hear feedback from the council before sending out funding proposals to businesses.
The version of the pilot program that went before the council Monday night showed a $25,000 commitment from the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, and a $25,000 commitment from Explore Whitefish through a recently announced new agreement on how to distribute the Community Sustainability Fund (CSF).
Fundraising is ongoing for the remaining $50,000 in funding from donors and businesses. If the remaining fundraising goals are met, the program would have an annual income of $300,000, of which $287,000 would be allocated for rental assistance going towards up to 60 households for up to $4,800 each. The remainder of the budget would be divided into $2,500 for one-time costs, including website updates and forms, and $10,500 for the costs of administering the program, including for staff time, bookkeeping and legal reviews.
As part of its agreement to provide $200,000 in funding for the program, the city entered into an agreement with Housing Whitefish, which will require quarterly reports about funds committed and expended, the number households served, and other significant data. There will also be an annual review of funding criteria and policies with an opportunity for the city to provide input and approval of significant changes.
Funding will come from the city’s Affordable Housing Fund, which according to a city staff report has $504,710 appropriated for affordable housing programs in the Fiscal Year 2024 budget, and an annual revenue from property taxes of approximately $316,000. The first round of funding would be for $100,000. Once that money is spent, the city would provide the additional $100,000 upon request.
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