Economists say there are a number of reasons for the labor shortages pinching communities across the country, from people being choosier about what they do for work to retirement — but Docter and many others in Whitefish place the blame squarely on a lack of affordable housing. Docter said he personally knows of dozens of people who used to work in Whitefish’s service industries but have left in the last two years because they couldn’t find a place to live. Some have moved to less expensive communities in the Flathead and found jobs there. Others have left the Flathead Valley or Montana altogether.
“Every one of us knows someone who has left Whitefish,” Docter said. “It’s a crisis.”
Docter was a panelist at an affordable housing forum in Whitefish on Wednesday that featured representatives from local government, nonprofits and the business community. The event was hosted by the Flathead Democratic Party and co-sponsored by the Northwest Montana Association of Realtors, the Kalispell Education Association and NeighborWorks Montana.
As home prices soar and more people move in, Flathead Valley residents find themselves stymied by a dwindling supply of rental properties.
Another issue is the proliferation of short-term rentals. In 2014, there were just 31 short-term rentals in the 59937 zip code, which includes all of Whitefish. Now there are more than 1,000, according to AirDNA, a site that tracks rentals on Airbnb, Vrbo and other vacation rental services.
Whitefish is expected to produce another housing needs assessment in 2022, and many stakeholders believe it will show a housing situation even more dire than the 2016 assessment.
Over the decades, Whitefish has tried a number of methods to address its housing issues, including the establishment of a housing authority and inclusionary zoning that required developers to include a certain number of deed-restricted residences in any project or pay fees. Whitefish and Bozeman were the only two communities in the state to have such a zoning program, but both were torpedoed earlier this year when Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a bill prohibiting them.
On Wednesday, panelists at the housing forum in Whitefish lamented the end of that inclusionary zoning program, but offered other solutions to the community housing problems. Kalispell city councilperson Ryan Hunter said the Flathead’s continuing growth will require a new mindset among locals about zoning and where new homes are built. He pinned part of the blame on nimbyism and restrictive zoning that doesn’t allow for dense housing developments.
“When your community is going through great change like ours is, it’s not fair to say, ‘Well, my neighborhood can’t change.’ You have to be part of the solution,” he said. “Nimbyism is one of the biggest barriers to affordable housing.”
One proposed development mentioned multiple times during the forum is the Mountain Gateway project at the base of Big Mountain, which has become the subject of a contentious debate in Whitefish. The development calls for 318 housing units on 30 acres north of downtown, with 32 of the rental units being deed restricted. Opponents say the development would result in additional traffic, especially in winter when thousands of vehicles turn onto Big Mountain Road every day to reach Whitefish Mountain Resort. They also say 32 affordable units isn’t enough to address the community’s housing needs. Proponents of the project say any long-term rental units — deed-restricted or not — would help the city address its needs. After a long hearing last month, the Whitefish Planning Board is having a second hearing about the project this week.
Meanwhile, local businesses desperate for help are exploring their own solutions to the housing crisis. This summer, Docter and a number of other local business owners formed the Whitefish Workforce Housing Project to lease housing and then rent it to their employees at a discounted rate. Docter said he is leasing three different homes to his employees, and that the project is preparing to provide 25 to 50 units at a discounted rate for service workers in the coming months. The project’s steering committee is planning to form a nonprofit cooperative in the coming months. Docter said the units will cost workers about $700 a month.
Docter also said timing is of the essence, and if the local community doesn’t step up soon to solve the housing crisis, the town will never be able to solve it.
If nothing is done, he said, “It’s only going to get worse.”