Tuesday, November 28, 2023

An Affordable Housing Partnership Right in Front of Us

by Nathan Dugan
| November 16, 2022 1:00 AM

If you’ve never been to a city council meeting in Whitefish, I’d suggest attending at least once. If you want the best bang for your buck, then go when there’s something controversial on the agenda - it can be either an affirmational or an eye-opening experience, depending on your worldview. When new housing is proposed, you might hear things like: “I would urge the city to move in the direction of public-private partnerships that will directly address affordable and workforce housing issues” or “we have to take this profit thing out of the solution, we have to form nonprofit, public-private partnerships, and get the housing built.”

The two quotes above were provided during public testimony in Whitefish City Hall on February 7, 2022, to oppose the Mountain Gateway development which would have provided 80 affordable rental/ownership homes plus 238 market-rate rental homes. Were these genuine commitments, or hollow promises? Events that have transpired since the Whitefish City Council chose to deny the Mountain Gateway proposal seem to suggest the latter - but it is never too late, and I hope that these few paragraphs can drive some positive action.

Just two weeks later, on February 21, Jerry Dunker came before the city council to make a request. Economic conditions since the Trailview affordable homes were initially approved in May of 2018 had made it impossible to keep all of the units affordable without significant monetary losses - construction and materials costs were simply too high. The city council approved an amendment to allow Jerry to sell 10 of the 58 homes at market rate. Of the many self-proclaimed affordable housing advocates who lamented that the Mountain Gateway’s 80 affordable homes did not provide enough affordable homes for Whitefish residents, exactly zero came to comment on this change and the loss of 10 affordable homes.

Then things got worse. In March 2022, the Federal Reserve began to raise interest rates. Rates on 30-year mortgages increased from 2% to more than 7% in the following months, and it again became more difficult to keep Trailview’s remaining affordable homes affordable. That’s where we stand today. Trailview’s remaining deed-restricted affordable homes that have yet to be built/occupied are in need of subsidies in the $50,000 - $100,000 range each due to interest rate increases alone. Its 10 market-rate homes will sell for $625,000 - $675,000. These market-rate homes would require substantially more subsidy to remain affordable, or someone could purchase one with the intent to rent to local workers and possibly work out a deal.

What is a public-private partnership if not this exact scenario? A community member decided to build a 100% affordable housing project on their own and, in hindsight, ran into inevitable problems making it work financially due to the dynamics of the coronavirus pandemic. The city has already done its part by approving the proposal and various necessary changes along the way. I’ve heard many times during city council meetings that Whitefish is a small but mighty community that has leveraged public-private partnerships to build great things for the community. We have places like The Wave and The Stumptown Ice Den to prove it. The public-private partnership proponents claim that the same can be done for housing. Well, here’s a chance to prove it.

Nathan Dugan is the President of Shelter WF.

Recent Headlines