Whitefish’s new housing program worth a try

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Whitefish embarks on a new affordable housing program this week, and we’ll be anxious to see how well developers embrace it.

The Legacy Homes program mandates inclusionary zoning, which means if you’re going to build housing in Whitefish that needs discretionary permit approval, 20 percent of the dwelling units must be dedicated to permanent affordable housing.

According to city officials, Legacy Homes rental units will be priced to be affordable for two-person households earning a gross income of $33,420 to $44,560 per year, with a two-bedroom apartment renting from $941 to $1,254. Two-person households earning $44,560 to $66,840 per year can qualify for ownership units, with two-bedroom homes priced from $175,603 to $263,404.

Whitefish has been mulling options for affordable housing for decades, and many years ago put in place a voluntary inclusionary program to boost the city’s number of affordable dwellings. With exorbitant land prices in Whitefish, the voluntary effort never really worked.

It remains to be seen how the Legacy Homes program will be embraced by developers. Land prices in Whitefish are at an all-time high, and there are those who speculate the mandatory program could stymie development in Whitefish and send developers scurrying down the road to more affordable land in Columbia Falls and rural neighborhoods in the county.

The other side of the argument, though, is that the program offers developers some pretty significant incentives such as reduced parking requirements and increased density and building heights for doing business in Whitefish.

With a recent housing assessment revealing the need for close to a thousand new housing units of all types to keep up with housing demand through 2020 — that’s next year, by the way — it was way past time for the city to take a firm stand on affordable housing. Whitefish teachers, firefighters and police officers want to live in the city where they work. So do bartenders, wait staffers and service providers. But far too often they’re forced to find housing elsewhere, or in many cases have several roommates just to pay the rent. It’s a plight many resort towns face.

Kudos to Whitefish for taking the bull by the horns, so to speak, to solve the housing dilemma. We hope it works.

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