The Montana Board of Housing on Monday awarded $6.75 million in federal tax credits to Whitefish, paving the way for a planned affordable housing project here.
The board allocated funds to five projects in the state including to Whitefish. The Whitefish Housing Authority, in partnership with the nonprofit Homeword, Inc., plans to create a 38-unit apartment housing complex on Edgewood Place.
The low-income housing tax credit is a federal income tax credit for owners of rental housing that meets certain low-income occupancy and rent limitation requirements.
State housing board vice chair Jeanette McKee ranked Whitefish as one of the top priority projects in deserving of the housing tax credits.
“Whitefish is in desperate need and there’s no questions there,” she said.
The housing authority is looking at developing an $8 million project with Homeword of Missoula.
Ben Davis, chair of the Whitefish Housing Authority, said there was a lot of really good projects that applied for the tax credits.
“The community of Whitefish is very fortunate to have received this substantial grant,” he said following the decision. “The Whitefish Housing Authority along with our partners at Homeword and the city of Whitefish have been working on getting this project funded for some time, and it’s really great news for everyone that this project was selected in a very competitive process.”
Heather McMilin, with Homeword, said she expects the housing project to go out for bid in spring 2019 with construction to begin in June. Completion is anticipated for 2020.
“We’re ready to execute the design if we’re awarded the credits today,” McMilin told the Board of Housing prior to the vote.
City Councilor Katie Williams called the project on Edgewood Place a “catalyst” to help Whitefish grow its affordable housing stock, which she said is already 10 years behind on providing such housing.
“We’re so far behind we need every ounce of help we can get,” she said. “This will provide housing for those workers who are the backbone of our community. We want to preserve the Montana character of our town and not just become a resort town.”
The goal is to create a housing complex that would include affordable one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments. Rent on the housing units is expected to be between $400 and $890.
The area median income for Flathead County for a two-person household is $48,400. The industry standard for housing is that it should not be more than 30 percent of the owner or renter’s annual income to be considered affordable.
Davis said the tax credit will allow the construction costs of the units to be heavily subsidized when constructed to remain affordable to folks in a lower income range than would normally be possible.
“Quite simply, it’s one of the only options we have available to help members of our community earning less than 60 percent of area median income,” he said. “There are other important pieces of the affordable housing puzzle, but this is a critical part to reach certain residents who need the help the most. It’s a big deal for the Whitefish Housing Authority as well, as it will substantially increase the number of units we have available to the community.”
Mayor John Muhlfeld praised those involved in working to bring affordable workforce housing to the city.
“The city is humbled by this opportunity to finally deliver a meaningful affordable and workforce housing project to Whitefish,” he said. “Our strong partnership with the Chamber of Commerce and Whitefish Housing Authority is the key reason this project was approved, and we look forward to partnering with both organizations on other housing projects in our community.”
State housing boardmember Sheila Rice ranked Whitefish as one of her top priorities on Monday and praised the city of Whitefish for its participation in the project.
“Whitefish has a compelling need,” she said. “The city recognizing their role and working on this is a big model for everyone around the state.”
The Whitefish project was among eight affordable housing projects selected by the Board of Housing in June to submit full applications for federal tax credits, which allow developers to borrow less money for construction and pass those savings on through lower rent. On Monday, the board awarded $30.6 million total in tax credits to projects in Whitefish, Havre, Ronan, Billings and Helena.
In a letter to the housing board, McMilin said the lack of affordable housing in Whitefish is “stifling economic growth” and diversity as the core base of full-time residents drops due to a lack of affordable homes.
“The Whitefish housing market suffers from an increasingly familiar challenge in our beautiful destination communities where homes once for sale or rent to local residents have become short-term vacation rentals,” she said.
During public comment, Mariah Joos, an owner of Nelson’s Ace Hardware, told the board that affordable housing is important for businesses to continue to operate.
“It’s hard to maintain staff and difficult to hire new staff,” she said. “Affordable housing will help maintain the community and make sure we don’t just become a resort town.”
The last time Whitefish was awarded housing tax credits was in 2002 for a 10-unit family property and in 1991 for a 40-unit senior property.
The current Whitefish housing project is planned for development on land currently owned by Alan and Lisa Stinson who have agreed to sell it to the Housing Authority. The property on Edgewood Place just off Wisconsin Avenue was once a mobile home park, but is now largely vacant except for a few accessory buildings.
McMilin said that the Stinsons have agreed to sell the property at a reduced price of 79 percent of market value and a partnership for funding assistance from the housing authority and the city has created a “unique and rare opportunity” and is an illustration of the “significant community support” for the project.
City Council has pledged city funds of $150,000 for the purchase of property and the housing authority has committed $50,000. Council in September approved a zone change for the property to high density multi-family residential.
A housing needs study conducted in 2016 followed by the strategic housing plan completed the next year showed that roughly 900 residential units are needed to accommodate employee households through 2020 in Whitefish.