Affordable housing program heads to Planning Board for hearing

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Houses in Whitefish.

A housing needs assessment three years ago confirmed that Whitefish was in desperate need of affordable housing and called for the creation of 980 residential units here by 2020.

The document said that 62 percent of those units should be at more affordable prices, and the subsequent Whitefish Strategic Housing Plan put the onus on the city to ensure the creation of affordable workforce housing.

One of several initiatives called for in that plan is headed before the Planning Board for its first public hearing next week, and is the subject of an open house hosted by the city of Whitefish this week.

The Whitefish Legacy Homes Program seeks to create permanently affordable housing in the city through inclusionary zoning, which is a housing tool that links the production of affordable housing to the production of market-rate housing.

The city is proposing under its program to require that 20 percent of all new residential development be set aside for affordable housing, while at the same time creating incentives for developers designed to offset the cost of creating such housing.

Ben Davis, chair of the Whitefish Housing Authority board and the city’s Strategic Housing Plan Steering Committee, said the goal is to create rental units and homes for ownership for middle-income folks who want to live here.

“This is affordable housing that folks will be expected to purchase homes or pay rent — we are shooting for covering a broad swath of folks that work here and want to live here,” he said. “We want to find a happy medium to create affordable housing while still continuing development in our town.”

The program would apply to residential conditional use permits, planned unit developments and subdivisions requiring such developments to provide affordable housing units. Residential units allowed by right would be exempt.

The goal is to create housing for those with incomes between 60 and 120 percent of area median income. The area median income for Flathead County for a two-person household is $53,4000, and is also referred to as 100 percent area median income. The industry standard for affordable housing is that it should not be more than 30 percent of the owner or renter’s annual income.

Currently the average price for a house sold in the 59937 ZIP code is $676,663, according to the city.

City Manager Adam Hammatt points out that to afford the average house in and near Whitefish, an income of 291 percent of AMI or $155,444 per year is required.

“We’re talking about creating moderate income housing,” he said of the Legacy Homes Program.

Hammatt said that similar programs exist across the country and the city’s Strategic Housing Plan Steering Committee has spent many months looking at programs and working with housing consultants to draft a program for Whitefish.

“We’re trying to learn from the mistakes of others and not duplicate them,” he said.

According to a report by the nonprofit Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, in 2017 there were roughly 880 jurisdictions in the United Sates with inclusionary housing programs located in 25 states and the District of Columbia.

Based upon the city’s workforce housing needs assessment, the Legacy Homes Program calls for rental units to be affordable to households earning 60 to 80 percent of AMI, and residential ownerships units will be targeted for households earning 80 to 120 percent of AMI.

For example, rent for a two-bedroom unit in the program would cost $751 to $1,388 per month depending on income. For ownership units, the purchase price of a two-bedroom unit would be about $148,500 to $282,000 based upon income.

The Whitefish Housing Authority would certify applicants as qualifying for rental and ownership units.

Davis explains that this includes verifying income requirements, as well as, counseling programs to prepare those applying for home ownership, and then referring applicants to property managers for rental units or to a financial institution to obtain a loan for home ownership.

“We hope as the program grows that people will come in and talk to us at the housing authority,” he said. “I feel strongly that we have a need for housing.”

Ownership units would be single-family homes or townhouses, he noted, and price appreciation for them would be capped to keep those houses as affordable in the future as they are sold to a new owner.

Under the Legacy Homes Program, regulations would set the minimum square footage for affordable units, and also requires that they be architecturally compatible with the surrounding development of market rate units. The affordable units would be interspersed with market rate units and bedroom mix would need to align with the mix of the market units.

All units would be deed-restricted as affordable in perpetuity.

A housing mitigation plan would be required as part of the development permit application, and would detail how the development would meet the requirements of the program. Once a project is approved the plan becomes part of the development permit approval.

As an offset for providing affordable housing as part of a market-rate development, the program offers a list of incentives that effectively reduce certain development standards depending upon the type of development. Incentives include reducing some parking requirements by 20 percent, increase building heights by 10 percent, increase density by 20 percent, increase percent maximum lot coverage by 10 percent, reducing the minimum lot size by 20 percent and reducing the minimum lot width by 10 percent.

City Senior Planner Wendy Compton-Ring said Whitefish has for many years had a voluntary inclusionary zoning program that allows for a density bonus through a planned unit development for providing affordable housing, but that has only resulted in eight units.

“Our No. 1 priority is to provide units,” Compton-Ring said of the new program. “In looking at successful [inclusionary zoning] programs you have to have balance. You can’t require units without also providing incentives.”

The developer would be expected to provide deed-restricted affordable units on site or pay a fee in lieu of the units. Some exceptions are provided when affordable units could be developed off-site.

In addition as part of the program, the city is looking to create an administrative conditional use permit for smaller projects that could be approved by city planning staff without going before the Planning Board or City Council. Neighbors would still be notified and have a chance to comment, but if any concerns can be mitigated through standard conditions then staff can approve the CUP in 30 days compared to the 90-day process it takes now for all CUPs.

The city is hosting an open house on Thursday, March 14 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at City Hall to provide information about efforts to create affordable housing. The meeting is designed for those who want to learn more about plans for affordable housing in the city or those who want to find out if they will be eligible to rent or buy a home as part of the program.

Proposed regulations that would implement the Legacy Homes Program are set to go before the Whitefish Planning Board for public hearing on Tuesday, March 19 at 6 p.m. at City Hall.

The city estimates that final adoption of the program could take place in May or June.

To view documents related to the Legacy Homes Program, visit http://www.cityofwhitefish.org/boards-and-committees/whitefish-city-county-planning-board.php.

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