Board recommends program to create affordable homes

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The Whitefish Legacy Homes program is headed to City Council with a recommendation of approval from the Whitefish Planning Board.

The board on April 18 heard two items regarding the program, which 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.

Both items received unanimous support from the board.

The board continued a hearing from last month’s meeting on a zoning text amendment to implement the Legacy Homes Program, and also heard a second item that included each of the specific zoning regulation amendments necessary to carry out the program.

Board Chair Steve Qunell noted that while the plan isn’t perfect for everyone involved, the benefit of moving forward with the plan outweighs holding it back.

“As somebody who is a working class person in this town, I know what it’s like to try to live here and fortunately I got here when the working class person could still buy a home,” Qunell said. “It’s not perfect, but there’s a lot of give and take. There are things that people who develop projects in this town don’t like, and there are things that people who live in neighborhoods don’t like. The reason they don’t like it is they have to give a little, and we all have to give a little. And we all are taking a risk here in doing this, and it’s time that it’s done.”

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.

In addition, developers could use the option to pay a in-lieu-fee instead of creating the housing units.

The Legacy Homes 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.

Not everyone was in favor of the plan, however, as was the case in last month’s meeting as well.

Dev Warren, a developer, said the plan is too hard on developers and is already pushing projects out of Whitefish.

“I don’t know if you’re aware or not, but we lost over 200 units two weeks ago that decided to go to Kalispell and had previously been working to put the same project on the south end of Whitefish. We lost it because of the arrogance around this program and the idea that we’re going to make the developers pay for all of this. That’s who’s paying for this,” Warren said.

Warren suggested a plan concocted by the developers would be more fair than the current proposal, and said with the plan moving forward as it is, he wouldn’t be surprised to see developers preparing for legal battles with the city over the plan.

“If we want housing here, get the people who are going to build the housing to put a plan together for you, not sit there and say, ‘We’re just going to charge you,’” he said. “That’s where we landed, and I think it’s extremely disappointing. And I think it’s really disappointing that we haven’t had a single person who’s done a major project stand up here and say, ‘I like where we’re going, I can support this.”

Whitefish Housing Authority Board Chairman Ben Davis assured the board that both the developer and the resident has been heard throughout the process of writing the Legacy Homes plan.

“A lot of thought was put into the details that are in this plan, and by a lot of thought I mean hours of debate over all the specifics that are in there,” Davis said. “I’m not going to say that everybody is going to agree with every detail, because that’s not necessarily the case, but having been involved in how it was written, I think that what’s in there is a great balance between different interests and different concerns in our community.”

“One of my new phrases is when everybody’s mad about it, maybe you’re doing something right,” he added.

Responding to the fears that the developers are hurt too much by the plan, board member John Middleton noted that the market keeps on moving regardless.

“I get the concerns from the developer community, absolutely, but I think what’s being overlooked is that there are still market functions at work here,” he said. “If a project doesn’t make sense on a $1 million piece of dirt, and that developer chooses to go outside Whitefish, that’s their prerogative. But it might not make sense for a different developer either, in which case the $1 million piece of dirt is going to have to come down in value in order for any project to make sense. The market is going to continue to function the way it does. It’s going to have to adjust as a result of some of this.”

A Housing Needs Assessment in 2016 indicated a need to had 980 housing units — 400 ownership and 580 rentals — by 2020 in the city.

According to the staff report, between 2016 to 2019, there have been 340 ownership lots created which is 85 percent of the total identified by the housing assessment. Of those 58 lots expected to be created are deed-restricted affordable units or 24 percent of what is called for in the assessment.

Multi-family or rental units created from 2016 to 2019, total 333 or 57 percent of the target in the assessment. Of those 86 are set as deed restricted — or 24 percent of the goal — though they have not been constructed yet.

Staff notes that it is difficult to know how housing development will occur if the program is implemented. However, if it had been in place since 2016 there would have been an additional 106 units of ownership created and an additional 60 multi-family units created as deed restricted for affordable housing.

The program will be updated annually including to review the number of and type of deed restricted units that are needed to ensure that the program is “responsive to the market and the community needs.”

The Legacy Homes Program will go before City Council for a public hearing and vote on May 20.

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