Committee begins work on top four strategies for workforce housing

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Houses along Granite Drive in Whitefish. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

The Whitefish Strategic Housing Plan Steering Committee is already beginning work on the first four strategies outlined in the city’s Strategic Housing Plan.

The committee, which began meeting last month, has put four items on its immediate to-do list — exploring the development of the snow lot, creating inclusionary zoning, updating the city’s annexation policy and updating zoning codes — toward the goal of creating affordable housing.

City Council Feb. 5 approved the committee’s work list and OK’d spending up to $60,000 for consulting and technical assistance related to all of the items. Any policy changes or ordinances created by the committee will eventually return to Council for final approval.

City Manager Adam Hammatt asked for Council’s approval of the items. Each is listed in the top tier of strategies as part of the Whitefish Strategic Housing Plan adopted last fall as a roadmap for creating affordable housing for the city.

“It’s a question of the direction you want to go,” Hammatt told Council. “These are the first four strategies and the committee wanted to make sure we are on the right track for what the Council wants and to allow us to spend money, if necessary. This will allow us to continue forward with what’s a major project for the city.”

Hammatt said some of the money may need to be spent during the current fiscal year before the end of June, but more than likely most expenses would fall in fiscal year 2019 and would come back again to Council for approval during the budget cycle this spring.

The city is considering using the snow lot, near the corner of Columbia Avenue and Railway Street, for affordable housing. The city recently approved amending the downtown master plan to show the future land use of the lot as designated for multi-family residential housing rather than parking and it’s working to include the lot in the city’s tax increment finance district so TIF dollars can be spent in relation to the lot.

Council approved spending up to $30,000 on the lot to cover an environmental assessment, and for a potential development design competition for the lot. About half the money could go toward a design competition that would ask architects to provide a potential vision for the property.

“Similar to what was done for a design competition for City Hall,” Hammatt explained. “We would hold a competition that would ask architects for their feedback on what we could do for the lot.”

For creating inclusionary zoning and updating the city’s annexation policy pertaining to affordable housing, the city is looking to retain Rees Consulting to assist with the work. Rees is the same firm that did an initial assessment of the city’s housing needs and helped create the Strategic Housing Plan.

Hammatt said while he doesn’t like to hire consultants for every task, for these two items it’s necessary. The consultants would assist the committee with creating draft ordinances that would eventually go before Council for approval before being implemented.

“There is some need for a mediary to help with the public process and they have experience with the legal issues around this,” he said. “It would be nice to have a consultant to help us get through those two items.”

Whitefish has a voluntary inclusionary zoning program for affordable housing through its planned unit development overlays. A developer can get a density bonus if they provide 10 percent of units as deed restricted. However, this has only developed eight units in the city.

The Strategic Housing Plan recommends making inclusionary zoning mandatory with a minimum of 20 to 25 percent of homes in new subdivisions as deed restricted for long-term affordability.

The housing plan also recommends that the city update its annexation policy regarding property owners who request to be annexed into the city. The plan recommends adopting a policy that would require 75 percent to 80 percent of homes developed on properties annexed into Whitefish in the future to be deed restricted for occupancy by local residents.

Reversing the trend toward more second homes relative to primary residences occupied by locals is the goal of a change in the annexation policy, the housing plan notes.

Hammatt said the goal is to create policies that create affordable housing, but at the same time doesn’t stop development in Whitefish.

“We need to run a financial analysis on land costs and talk to developers,” he said. “We need to find that fine line between the amount of required affordable housing while making sure we don’t discourage developers. Somewhere in there is a balance.”

On zoning for affordability, the city expects that it could spend up to $5,000 on technical expertise to assist with zoning code revisions to help align regulations to increase the supply and diversity of housing choices for the workforce. Zoning for affordabliltiy allows and encourages housing development by the private sector, public/private partnerships and nonprofits, the housing plan notes.

The plan notes that zoning for affordability may remove unintentional barriers to housing in the zoning code such as prohibiting housing in most commercial zones, requiring excessive parking for small residential units and generally excluding small units.

Councilor Richard Hildner expressed concerns about where the funds would come from in the budget.

“Do we have enough wiggle room halfway through the [fiscal] year,” he asked.

Hammatt said $40,000 is expected to come from the TIF fund and $20,000 would come from the city’s general fund.

Finance Director Dana Smith said the city usually has extra money in the general fund at the end of the year that would cover the amount requested for the housing work.

“It’s not likely that we would get through all those before June,” Smith said.

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