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Affordable housing project set to break ground next summer

Daily Inter Lake | November 3, 2021 1:00 AM

The Whitefish Housing Authority is moving forward with plans to develop the property known as the snow lot into a townhouse project.

The housing authority plans to construct 24 townhouse units on the property in 12 buildings designed to look similar to the houses in the surrounding neighborhood. The snow lot is located at the corner of Railway Street and Columbia Avenue and designated that because that’s where the city has stored plowed snow.

“The need for affordable housing and workforce housing in Whitefish has reached a critical point and the WHA is working very hard to create homes that people can afford in our community,” said Lori Collins, the executive director of the housing authority.

The housing authority expects to go out to bid this winter on the project and break ground on construction in summer. The project is expected to take about 18 months to complete.

On Monday, Whitefish City Council approved an infusion of funding for the project that provided the final missing gap in funding needed to get the project off the ground. Council voted to designate $2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to the project, nearly the city’s total allocation of ARPA funds.

City Manager Dana Smith said as a result of the project housing insecurities will be significantly reduced for those who were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

“The snow lot townhomes project will also address the increased inequity of housing in Whitefish due to the pandemic by providing an affordable home ownership opportunity with permanent deed restrictions to keep the units affordable into the future,” she said. “Small businesses, especially those in the tourism industry, will also benefit from affordable housing available to local workers in the low- to moderate-income ranges.”

The total cost of the project is $6 million.

The ARPA funds will be used to pay for a portion of the eight units targeted for households making low- to moderate-income levels.

The city contributed the 1.64-acre property valued at $510,000, designated $509,000 in cash-in-lieu of affordable housing fee funds and provided $459,500 from the tax increment finance district.

The sales price for the units is still to be determined, but Collins said the goal is to keep them at under $300,000. The townhouses would be deed-restricted as affordable housing in perpetuity.

“Our mission is to keep them as low as possible,” she said.

The housing authority plans for the townhouses to be made available to purchase for those making 80% to 150% of area median income. Priority would be given to those who already live or work in Whitefish followed by those in Flathead County.

The current area median income in Flathead county is $56,800 for a two-person household or $71,000 for a family of four. The median home sale price in May 2021 in Whitefish was $611,500, according to the housing authority.

“This disparity between average income and home prices makes it very hard for the average worker to find a home they can afford,” Collins said.

Designs for the project show townhouse buildings constructed on the south and north portion of the lot with parking in the center hidden behind the buildings.

Jen Clary, with Encompass Design, said the buildings were designed to fit in with the historic neighborhood and kept as low as possible to protect the viewshed toward Big Mountain.

“We really wanted to take from the fabric of the neighborhood and especially for those homes that are looking toward the neighborhood that’s already there,” she said.

At roughly 1,200 square feet in size, the townhouses contain two bedrooms and two bathrooms. They have been designed with both inside and outside storage spaces in addition to the living areas and would have a small private yard.

A 2016 housing needs assessment completed by the city found that Whitefish needed to add almost 1,000 new units of housing, both affordable and market rate, by the end of 2020 to keep up with demand. The city is planning to do an update of the assessment.

Collins says that since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the community has seen a flood of people moving here.

“This influx found new homeowners purchasing homes at higher than previous market rate prices which has driven the average home price higher than the average person can afford,” she said. “Additionally, affordable rentals have been sold at an elevated rate, forcing local workers to scramble to find affordable rentals or homes to purchase.”

The housing authority believes the townhouse project will be step toward meeting some of the housing needs in the community, she noted. For more information on the Whitefish Housing Authority, visit https://whitefishhousing.org/

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