Sunday, August 07, 2022

What’s the vision for housing in Whitefish?

| October 6, 2021 1:00 AM

There was a recent letter from council candidate Giuseppe Caltabiano criticizing Whitefish’s Legacy Homes program designed for affordable housing under inclusionary zoning and more broadly against any policies that infringe on free-market housing development. The letter has several factual inaccuracies and misunderstandings underlying its key arguments, but given that the program is no longer in place (after the state Legislature passed a bill prohibiting inclusionary zoning) it feels unnecessary to argue them, and instead to focus on the future. The key issue citizens must weigh is this: why was that program passed to begin with, and given where the Legislature and governor have left this community, what solution will work and actually make a difference in the long run?

A brief history lesson may be helpful. Whitefish has tried to create “incentives” to facilitate a market-based solution for the past 20 years. The voluntary program has produced a very small number of “affordable” units. There is an old tennis saying, “change a losing game.” If affordable workforce housing is important to this community (and businesses and fellow citizens have told us time and time again it is) we need to change this losing game.

The current City Council has spent years studying the housing issue and has hardly reinvented the wheel on any of this – one need look no further than numerous similar mountain communities who have robust programs like these. There was a years-long public process that included citizens, business leaders, developers and builders. Consultants were brought in who had decades of experience on housing policy, and enormous effort was expended to tailor the program to the needs of the community. The state Legislature, in its crusade this session against local control, unfortunately, used the exact same arguments made by Mr. Caltabiano, except those arguments were being made by special interest lobbies who were quite transparent in their goals to protect developer profits. This was a significant setback.

Does anybody look around Whitefish right now and say gosh, the private sector is doing a great job of producing the kinds of development we need in town, thank goodness Legacy Homes was repealed? In many areas of economics, the “get out of the way” approach argued by Mr. Caltabiano works, but not here in the creation of affordable workforce housing. In that line of thought, why have zoning policy or growth planning at all? Whitefish is unique and has a special set of challenges that must be considered and examined: enormous development pressure, limited land at astronomical prices, and a development economy driven primarily by the needs of tourists and second homeowners and not locals. We are a small town and it is simply not possible to build enough local housing to meet demand right now, certainly not without sacrificing who we are as a town.

The Legacy Homes Program was simply a way for the community to say, through their elected representatives: we would like at least some of the real estate development to service the needs of the local workforce which is the backbone of our community. Without them, where would we be? It was not even that controversial. A good council can and should set the guard rails for the private sector, and let them do what they do best: innovate within those boundaries. City Council cannot lose sight of who we work for, and that is the incredible community of folks who have made Whitefish their home. This is the vision that matters, and it must not be lost.

Mayor John Muhlfeld and City Councilor Ben Davis, who is running for re-election.

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