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City’s Housing Roadmap assists in planning of needed affordable housing

by JULIE ENGLER
Whitefish Pilot | November 30, 2022 1:00 AM

Efforts to make housing accessible and affordable for people who want to live and work in Whitefish was one of the items on the City Council meeting agenda last week.

Council voted unanimously to adopt the Whitefish Community Housing Roadmap which is an update of the Whitefish Strategic Housing Plan that was adopted in 2017.

It was formulated during several meetings of the Housing Refresh Team which is made up of the Whitefish Strategic Housing Plan Steering Committee and a group of individuals with varied backgrounds who are interested in helping Whitefish find solutions to its housing challenges.

The process of creating the Housing Roadmap involved updating the 2016 Community Housing Needs Assessment and holding an open house for public input in July. Wendy Sullivan and Seana Doherty, from WSW Consulting and Agnew::Beck respectively, met four times with the Housing Refresh team over the last six months.

The purpose of the Housing Roadmap is to outline “a partnership framework and a range of strategies to drive action to address community housing needs in the Whitefish area over the next five years.”

Sullivan commented about the progress the city's made and the significant number of partners and amount of community interest that’s been generated.

“I recognize as a consultant coming in and doing this kind of work… it’s depressing, and for those of you who that have read the Housing Needs Assessment that we did as part of this plan, the numbers are quite daunting,” Sullivan said. “However, on the flip side, it’s also very mobilizing.”

The consultants define community housing as housing not being provided by the existing housing market at prices attainable for community members that live and work in the Whitefish area.

According to the updated needs assessment, 1,310 new homes are needed in Whitefish by the year 2030 and 75% of them need to be priced below market rate.

The report found the rental market is expensive and scarce. The example they give is that a three person household earning up to $75,000 per year will struggle to find rental housing. Buying a home is out of reach for most local employees as homes priced under $500,000 are scarce in Whitefish and in neighboring communities.

One goal is to have 35% rentals and 65% ownership properties among the new homes constructed by 2030, and another is to retain or improve on the percentage of full-time occupancy, which is currently 70%.

The roadmap contains core component actions including establishment of private/public partnerships, increasing staff capacity, clarifying roles and getting information to the public through outreach programs.

Doherty said the next steps of this phase of the work after the adoption by city council are to have other community housing partners adopt the roadmap and integrate its strategies into 2023 work plans. The implementation and coordination of all parties will happen throughout 2023.

Whitefish City Manager Dana Smith said the city is currently in the process of hiring for the housing coordinator position. She is also meeting with the Whitefish School Board soon regarding affordable housing needs.

“We will continue to take the lead on the establishment of the partnership framework where we will look to… meet with our community partners to continue moving forward with these housing strategies,” said Smith.

Katie Williams served on the Housing Refresh Team and as a board member of the Whitefish Housing Authority (WHA), she said they are excited for the snow lot development, now called the Depot Park Townhouses, and they are ready to work with the city to help with further efforts.

As board chair of Housing Whitefish, the nonprofit associated with the WHA, Williams announced they have recently hired Daniel Sidder as the to be the first executive director of Housing Whitefish.

“His position is slated to begin in December and the Housing Whitefish board has identified the priority for the new executive director to start working with the city to help continue the momentum achieved by the Whitefish Community Housing Roadmap,” Williams said.

President of Shelter WF, Nathan Dugan, spoke at public comment.

“The report lays bare the problems that we have and provides some good solutions, like implementing a communications and outreach plan to better educate the community on housing topics… zoning for affordability and flexible forms and tenant protections,” said Dugan.

About housing, Councilor Ben Davis added, “It’s a cyclical industry but I think the key here… is we’re setting up a system. (The new plan’s) got core components, it’s got public/private development funding, which I see as related, and then it’s got policies which would be zoning-type policies and then the housing programs.

“I like the fact the core components are at the top of the list. We need to have people that work on housing Monday through Friday, nine to five,” he added.

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