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Opportunity for neighbors, not developers, to build homes in Whitefish

by Nathan Dugan
| July 4, 2022 3:00 PM

On Monday, May 16, 2022, the Whitefish City Council acted decisively to address housing shortages in Whitefish — particularly the lack of affordable rentals. On a 4-1 vote, the council passed a new accessory dwelling unit (ADU) ordinance that will serve to provide homes that meet the needs of many renters in Whitefish, including teachers, firefighters, bartenders, and many others who are struggling to find affordable housing options close to work, play, and social lives.

Beginning on June 16, 2022, ADUs are a permitted use in all zoning districts throughout the city. Previously, ADUs required a conditional use permit (CUP) — a longer process that used valuable planning board and city council time. Under the CUP process over many years, an ADU permit was never once denied. In light of these facts, changing ADUs to a permitted use just makes sense — it allows limited city council time to be freed up to tackle bigger issues across the spectrum of those faced in Whitefish.

Additionally, the new ordinance re-legalizes the long-term rental of the ADU regardless of the owner’s residency. In a town that is already inundated with out-of-state investment and primary homes that sit vacant most of the year, this is an incredibly important step to unlock housing choices for renters close to our downtown core — where they can easily avoid becoming a part of the traffic problem on the way to work, play or school.

ADUs no longer need to solely be located above a garage, a fact that will lessen their overall visual impact - many will simply look like a standard garage. These low-impact and modest buildings will continue to maintain the visual character of our neighborhoods while preserving the mixed-income “people character” that makes Whitefish the welcoming small town that we all love, and that many of us moved here to be a part of.

Finally, the new ordinance creates an incentive program for long-term renting to locals. In exchange for a minimum of five years of long-term renting via 12-month leases and no more than 30 days of vacancy between leases, a homeowner will be allowed to build an ADU up to 800 square feet without building an additional and expensive parking space, and will be eligible for financial incentives like impact fee reimbursement. It is my opinion and strong belief that these incentives will be highly effective in producing ADUs that are long-term rentals in the short-term, and that many will remain long-term rentals beyond the initial five-year period as homeowners are able to realize their positive impact on the community as a whole.

A recent letter to the editor described the removal of owner-occupancy requirements as the city deeming “itself ineligible for significant new federal funding for housing under the Biden-Harris Administration Housing Supply Action Plan…” This statement is either a gross misreading of the administration’s May 16 announcement, at best, or a disingenuous take that ultimately serves to remove most renters from Whitefish in favor of million-dollar single-detached homes on all developable land in the city, at worst.

The plan (found on www.whitehouse.gov) financially rewards jurisdictions that have reformed zoning and land-use policies with higher scores on federal grants targeted to transportation infrastructure and within the investment priorities for the U.S. Economic Development Administration. This section of the plan is preceded by the statement, “one of the most significant issues constraining housing supply and production is the lack of available and affordable land, which is in large part driven by state and local zoning and land use laws and regulations that limit housing density.” Make no mistake, this ADU ordinance is one small step toward unlocking federal funding to improve transportation infrastructure in Whitefish. With a funding gap of $130,000,000 over the 20-year life of its upcoming transportation plan, it is vitally important that Whitefish be able to access these funds.

The Biden-Harris plan also specifically addresses ADUs. It states that “...a number of states and local jurisdictions have made land-use changes to permit the construction and renovation of ADUs, which can offset the cost of homeownership while expanding the supply of affordable rental housing.” The City of Whitefish is following widely agreed-upon best practices to provide homes for our neighbors of all income levels, particularly for those who are low- and middle-income earners who are currently completely priced out of the market — and will forever be priced out of the market without some intentional changes to address housing affordability.

Will 100% of ADUs be rented long-term all of the time? The obvious answer is no, and that’s OK. ADUs that are built for personal use may be long-term rented in the future and vice versa. This is a massive opportunity for those of us who are fortunate enough to own homes here in Whitefish to contact our favorite local builders and contractors to build affordable homes for our community members ourselves — without developers.

Nathan Dugan is a co-founder and the President of Shelter Whitefish.

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