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Fresh faces needed on Whitefish’s housing committee

by Nathan Dugan
| December 28, 2022 1:00 AM

In November, the Whitefish City Council adopted the 2022 Whitefish Community Housing Action Plan — a document meant to guide the creation of more affordable housing options in Whitefish by 2030. One of the plan’s primary recommendations is to “evolve” the city’s housing committee, which in its current form, is set to sunset on Dec. 31, 2022.

My organization, Shelter WF, is committed to ensuring that the makeup of the new committee is not only overwhelmingly pro-housing but also represents a diverse section of our entire community that elevates the voices of renters in the conversation and decision-making. The current committee lacks this essential makeup, is minimally receptive to new ideas, and is slow to act.

The best example of the need for change is this: the city’s Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) ordinance update, identified as a key strategy in the 2017 Strategic Housing Plan, was discussed in this committee during many meetings over the course of nearly two years. A review of online agendas reveals that ADUs were on the Jan. 9, 2020, agenda and continued to be discussed until the committee finally advanced the issue to the Whitefish Planning Board and City Council on Aug. 12, 2021. In total, this issue sat with the housing committee for at least 20 months before finally being green-lighted. So, it must have been a pretty controversial policy then, right?

Surprisingly, outside of the housing committee room, this policy change was not at all controversial. By the time the ordinance was finally passed on May 16, 2022, the city had received 27 letters in favor of the change and just four against it. Given these margins, this policy should have sailed through the committee in a few months at most. Unnecessary delays on the city’s housing committee, much like unnecessary delays at the city council level, have real-life consequences for housing affordability — in this case, missing out on a favorable interest rate market that would have allowed homeowners to build ADUs at a significantly reduced cost.

What does this all mean? Mayor John Muhlfeld should think long and hard about reappointing any current housing committee members to the new committee in 2023. We believe a fresh slate of new faces in the room would help a lot with advancing affordable housing initiatives in Whitefish, faster and with more efficiency. Nothing will be accomplished without advocates and advocacy organizations like Shelter WF, and we would like to see the final two at-large members of the committee be two housing advocates or a housing advocate and affordable housing resident. The business community will be represented by the Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitors Bureau and does not need additional at-large representation on this committee.

Shelter WF would like to see our most consistent pro-housing council member, Steve Qunell, be the council representative on the new committee. Additionally, we would like to see one at-large spot be given to someone like our own Leanette Galaz, a single mother and Whitefish renter who has also worked in the service industry in town. Without fresh perspectives like these, the committee’s solutions will continue to fall short of meeting the entire community’s housing needs and will continue to come too late. We will keep our website (shelterwf.org) updated throughout this process, and you can get involved as well by sending in letters of support for members of the housing committee who are unabashedly pro-housing.

Nathan Dugan is the President of Shelter WF.

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