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Draft housing assessment reveals severity of Whitefish’s housing shortfall

by JULIE ENGLER
Whitefish Pilot | August 17, 2022 1:00 AM

A draft of an updated Whitefish Housing Needs Assessment that was discussed by city officials and community members last week predicts Whitefish will need over 1,000 homes built over the next eight years and at least 75% of those homes need to be priced below market value to keep up with housing demands.

This July, the City of Whitefish began work on a needed update to its Strategic Housing Plan when the 2022 housing refresh team met with consultants to kick off the two-part process. The group met again last week.

The hybrid meeting on Aug.11 was the second of three meetings scheduled and was led by Seana Doherty of Agnew::Beck and Wendy Sullivan of WSW Consulting who facilitated the meeting remotely while the majority of the housing refresh team met at Whitefish City Hall.

The team includes the current members of the Whitefish Strategic Housing Committee as well as community members who represent financial institutions, developers, the Whitefish Community Foundation, Housing Whitefish, the Whitefish Housing Authority and other citizens who bring varying perspectives.

The first part of the process involves updating the city’s 2016 Housing Needs Assessment to present an understanding of the community housing problem. The second part of the housing refresh process will be to update the 2017 Whitefish Strategic Housing Plan.

The consultants released a draft of the updated Housing Needs Assessment and the purpose of the meeting last week was to review the draft for clarity, not to delve into strategies, as that is the work for the next meeting which is scheduled for Sept. 13.

According to the report, to address the current housing shortfall and keep up with future job growth, Whitefish needs 1,310 homes to be built by 2030 and the majority of those homes need to be priced below market value.

The document defines community housing as housing that is affordable for community members that live and work in the Whitefish area that is not being provided by the housing market. The draft says it refers to a wide range of income levels, not just low-income housing.

The draft assessment identifies four reasons for the shortage of housing. The first is that wages are not keeping up with rising home prices and rents. The document states home prices increased by 17%, rents increased by 7-12% and wages rose by 5-7% over time.

“A common theme in communities, such as your area, is a shortage in the supply of housing that people making their living (here) can afford,” Sullivan said. “You’re competing with people with more resources, people that are cash buyers, etcetera, and your wages just can’t keep up with a person earning a bunch of money in New York, for example.”

Additionally, the median sale price for a home in Whitefish in June of 2022 was $950,000 which represents a 197% increase since 2015-16. Home prices in Kalispell rose 243% and prices in Columbia Falls rose 174% in that same time period. The report says as the ability for employees of Whitefish businesses to find affordable homes in neighboring communities diminish, commuting becomes less of an option.

“Housing becomes an important competitive advantage to be able to attract and maintain the employees you need,” Sullivan said. “You have about 57% of your workforce that currently commutes into your area for work.”

The estimated need for housing between 2016 and 2021 was 980 new housing units — 1,067 were built, but prices and rents dramatically increased, availability dropped and now residents and employees are struggling more than ever to find homes. Of the 1,067 housing units built, 60% needed to be priced below market and only 7% were.

Finally, the report mentions the loss of community housing because of things like short-term rentals, redevelopment such as apartments being lost to pending hotel developments, and conversion of community housing units to market rate units.

The assessment shows that 71% of single-family homes in the Whitefish area are owned by local residents. It also notes that in 2016, there were 529 active listings for short-term rentals and in 2022 there are 1,422, an increase of 160%.

“Since 2010, 30% of your homes are utilized as a second home. Basically, they are not occupied by a full-time resident of your community,” Sullivan said. “Forty percent of the homes in your community are owned by people that do not have a local address; they are owned by people outside the area.”

Doherty said that over the next couple of months there will be two public workshops. The feedback received from the public will be used by the team during their September meeting.

Doherty noted that Whitefish Housing Coordinator Marissa Getts is driving the outreach plan and is in the process of creating a website with information about the housing refresh process with links to documents.

“We need to be working together to build this and also to educate the public about it,” Getts said. “We all get to be the face of this.”

Doherty explained there are three components to the entire refresh process: the data is the foundation, the strategies phase will begin in September and the last piece is the implementation of the plan.

There will be a draft plan of the entire housing strategy presented in October and the process will wrap up with a city council meeting in November when the final draft of the Strategic Housing Plan will be addressed.

For more information visit https://www.cityofwhitefish.org/579/Whitefish-Housing-Refresh-2022

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