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Taking Steps to Meet Affordable Housing Problem in Whitefish, MT

The Whitefish Chamber of Commerce has developed a Workforce Housing Initiative to begin the process of trying to solve the lack of affordable housing in the City of Whitefish, Montana. As the Chairman of the Task Force, Tom Tornow is an active advocate for the cause.

The Whitefish Chamber of Commerce's Newsletter is closely following the Task Force's progress:

December 2015 / January 2016

 Subcommittees working through the holidays Housing Task Force gets down to business    A sense of urgency hung over the room as the Chamber’s 20-member Workforce Housing Task Force met for the first time November 2. Fueled by a common desire to stop talking about the workforce housing shortage and start doing something about it, a diverse group of local business, government, and community leaders was eager to begin crafting a strategy for making Whitefish a more affordable place to live for all of those who work here. “It’s a huge issue, with lots of moving parts,” said Chamber Executive Director Kevin Gartland. “But what we’re hearing from our member businesses – large and small – is that this is something we need to deal with yesterday.” So despite the onset of the Holiday Season, Task Force members opted to split into a trio of subcommittees, to continue meeting and gathering information for the next few weeks, before bringing the full group back together on January 12. According to Task Force Chairman Tom Tornow, there are really three very different (but interrelated) components of the affordable workforce housing problem: •	Short-term (seasonal) rental housing; •	Long-term (1-year +) rental housing; and  •	Affordable home ownership. And the bottom-line – both literally and figuratively – is the price of real estate in Whitefish. The success of our tourist-based economy (and the health of our real estate industry) are the very things that make it financially impossible for the majority of those employed in tourism to live in the town where they work. Three sub-committees were created at this month’s meeting, to perform the following tasks: •	Determine the need for a new/updated Workforce Housing Needs Assessment, and draft a Request for Proposal (RFP) to be considered by the Task Force in January. •	Research “best practices” – contact other communities (resort and otherwise) who have dealt with / are dealing with the issue, and find out what’s worked… and what hasn’t. •	Identify all of the potential funding tools available… from zoning, regulation and taxation to grants, loans, private philanthropy and sweat equity. For more information – or if you’re interested in participating on the Workforce Housing Task Force or its sub-committees – contact Gartland at the Chamber (406-862-3501), or at Kevin@WhitefishChamber.org.

February / March 2016

Chamber moving forward with study & plan Council will fund Workforce Housing initiative    The Whitefish City Council in January approved up to $60,000 in funding for an updated community housing assessment, the first step in developing plans to address the critical shortage of affordable workforce housing in the City of Whitefish. The funding is contingent upon Council approval of the “Request for Qualifications/Proposals” for the study currently being developed by the Whitefish Chamber and its Workforce Housing Task Force.  “We plan to bring the RFQ to Council for approval later on this month” said Chamber Executive Director Kevin Gartland, “and hopefully have a consultant on-board by mid- to  late-April.” The 20-member Task Force sees the housing assessment/study as the first step in developing a long-term strategy for addressing the local housing situation… but not the last one. “It’s the first step,” Task Force Chairman Tom Tornow said, “but we shouldn’t take it unless we’re really committed to taking the next one (developing a strategic plan), and to the ones after that (i.e. implementing the plan).”  Resisting the urge to rush While no one questions the fact that Whitefish has an affordable workforce housing shortage, quantifying the extent of the problem is a necessary first step in order to gain the support of (and funding from) federal, state and local agencies, as well as private foundations, philanthropists and investors. “Hiring an ‘expert’ to tell us something that we already know kind of grates on folks,” Gartland said, “but we need to have good, solid baseline data in order to establish – as a community – what our goals and priorities in this area should be. “Once we have the assessment in-hand – hopefully by the end of the summer – then we can develop an action plan for attacking the problem.”  Housing issue a ‘three-headed monster’ The Task Force and its three subcommittees have been meeting since November, and quickly recognized that the workforce housing issue in Whitefish is actually a “three-headed monster,” comprised of short-term (seasonal) rental housing, long-term rental housing, and affordable home ownership. Task Force members have thusfar focused their attention on long-term rentals and home ownership, in hopes of providing new, better, and more affordable options for the “rank and file” workers of Whitefish… stable, permanent and employed residents who’ve made – or are trying to make – Whitefish their home. “We talk about needing affordable places for our teachers, firefighters, nurses, and cops to live,” Gartland said, “but we also need places for restaurant wait staff, railroad workers, hair stylists and lift mechanics.” Resort-fueled real estate prices are impacting everyone’s ability to find (and afford) a home to rent or purchase, according to Chamber Board Chairman Tony Veseth, and it will take a broad-based community effort to begin turning the situation around. “We don’t have all the answers right now… that’s why we are going through the process,” he said. “We all want to jump right in a build something – anything – but we need to be patient and do this right.”

Stay tuned for more updates as the work on the Workforce Housing Initiative continues!

 

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