Guest Column

Building Affordable Homes in Whitefish is a Moral Responsibility

A neighborhood’s function is to serve the people within the community, not preserve it in an arbitrary snapshot in time

By Dakota Whitman

The housing crisis within Whitefish is no secret, but the numbers bear repeating. According to the City of Whitefish’s 2022 Community Housing Roadmap, a household income of $168,875 is the minimum required to be able to afford housing currently being supplied by the market. From 2016-2021, 93% of housing built was above market rate, and almost none of those were the higher density, multifamily homes we are missing. For a household making the median income of $67,500 to own a home and not be cost-burdened, the maximum purchase price needs to be $208,400. As of writing, there isn’t a single private market property for sale in the entirety of Whitefish for under $500,000.

But the purpose of this column is not to throw home price statistics in your face. It’s easy to get lost in the numbers of it all, but at its root the issue of affordable housing is about ensuring the wellbeing of people. As such, we have a collective moral responsibility to ensure access to adequate, stable, and affordable homes for all our residents. A stable home is a necessary ingredient in the recipe for a fulfilled, healthy life. The lack of such a home coupled with chronic housing insecurity can have severe impacts on a person’s overall health. A 2011 study conducted at Washington State University found that housing insecure respondents were twice as likely as housing secure respondents to report having poor mental health and delaying doctor visits due to high housing costs. Another study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the association between housing insecurity and food insecurity is significant, which has a causal effect on poor sleep quality and mental health. Lastly, a study published in the scientific journal “Transportation” found that longer commutes are associated with lower job satisfaction, reduced leisure time, and worse mental wellbeing.

One of the most common retorts to building affordable homes (which is usually a multifamily building or an ADU) is that it will “ruin the character of the neighborhood.” These same arguments are not applied to the opulent “McMansions” or other luxury style homes that are popping up in traditionally middle-class neighborhoods in Whitefish. Regardless, I argue that if your neighborhood excludes the working- and middle-class residents of your community, that neighborhood’s character is not worth preserving. It is the characters within a neighborhood that make it unique, not the buildings or their property value. Nobody would look at a lot of empty houses devoid of human influence and marvel at how much character they have. A neighborhood’s function is to serve the people within the community, not preserve it in an arbitrary snapshot in time. We are at our strongest when our neighborhoods are socioeconomic melting pots and not economically segregated charcuterie boards. When neighbors with an abundance help their neighbors who have little, we can build true resilience. When folks of varying generations can live in the same area and regularly interact with one another, we can begin to understand each other. When we deny the construction of affordable homes in the name of property values, convenient parking, and traffic while having a nation-leading surge of homeless residents, I fear we have lost what it means to be an empathetic community that aids one another.

As a young professional, the prevailing perception among my cohort is that we are temporarily tolerated but not welcomed to settle long-term in Whitefish. It is difficult to feel welcome when a home you can afford is said to “ruin” a neighborhood, and an imprecise and amorphous idea of “neighborhood character” takes precedence over your wellbeing as a contributing community member. This stubbornly persistent allegiance to a crystallized idea of neighborhood character has not allowed Whitefish the flexibility to change and accommodate its current residents. Much in the same way a healthy river is ever-changing and adapting to its current surroundings, so should a healthy town do the same. If you pour concrete along the banks of the river you will prevent it from changing, however you will also degrade the very ecosystem that made the river worth loving to begin with. I fear this has happened to Whitefish, but it is not irreversible. Not allowing our beloved town to change and adapt does not preserve its spirit, but rather erodes and hollows it out. If these perceptions and prejudices do not shift, this problem will only compound to future generations.

Dakota Whitman is a member of the board of directors for ShelterWF, a local pro-housing nonprofit organization, and a member of the city of Whitefish’s Climate Change Action Plan Committee.