The “Railway District” in Whitefish is a neighborhood tucked into the northwest corner of Whitefish and just blocks from the downtown central business district. It’s full of small old homes; some rentals, some refurbished, some needing renovations, and some now operating as businesses.
“This is Whitefish’s oldest working class neighborhood,” Executive Director of the Whitefish Housing Authority SueAnn Grogan and Operations Manager Lori Collins are standing in the kitchen of a 2-bedroom, 1-bath home the Housing Authority has spruced up, and plans to get back on the rental market in the next month. “It’s very interesting; it’s full of nooks and crannies and fun stuff.”
In the first bedroom there’s a “nook” where the wall dips in between closets to create a space for a dresser or a desk. The bathroom has built in drawers and shelves, the living room a wall of built in shelving, down the hall from the kitchen a door opens to the mud room with a washer and dryer hook up, and there’s a garage out back. The Whitefish Housing Authority put in a new heating system, and will be doing some exterior work when the snow melts.
“We do what Lori likes to call the fluff and buff… clean her up, put her back out there, you know, I was hoping to rent up to pets- well, not pets exclusively, but people with pets, and so I wanted to see if I could clean the carpet. Now we’ve stepped back and we’re going to be putting a wood floor across, and that’ll make a big difference, probably to the bedrooms as well.”
This home is one of three that the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad donated to the Whitefish Housing Authority. Grogan says this house has been sitting vacant for the past couple of years. The other two are old-school, company-style “shotgun” houses. They’re currently boarded up for the winter. Grogan says they hope to fix them up this spring, and maybe have them back on the rental market by next fall.
The railroad bought up the houses a couple years ago. At the time there was concern about an underground fuel plume from the BNSF fueling station contaminating the soil. Concern grew as the railroad bought up properties in the Railroad District and the city of Whitefish got a grant to conduct soil tests. The privately conducted tests revealed little or no contamination. The state Department of Environmental Quality backed up the lab results in the winter of 2010. Now, the Whitefish Housing Authority wants to make these houses help fill the affordable rental gap in the short term. In the longer term it hopes to use the rental income to help cover costs of its other programs.
“Because we got these homes from the railroad at no- there’s no debt, at this point. Our rehabilitation costs are going to be our debt,” Grogan said.
So the Housing Authority is in the process of finding the funding from various sources.
“A lot of people say, you know, they joke about it- you talk about affordable housing in Whitefish and they say, ‘does that even exist?’ and, unfortunately for a lot of people in Whitefish it doesn’t,” Realtor John Middleton has joined forces with the Housing Authority to try to help it raise the funds needed. He says Whitefish has seen housing prices drop somewhat over the last few years of recession, but not enough.
“By living here, it’s a compromise; we take a little bit of a discount in what we earn in exchange for a beautiful place to live,” Middleton said the housing authority helps bridge that gap.
“So, unfortunately the short answer is yes, there is still an extreme demand for affordable housing, and even with the correction that we’ve gone through recently, I’d say, on a daily basis there are more people calling looking for properties that we just simply can’t offer,” Middleton said.
Middleton defines affordable housing as a home priced at $150,000 or less, and a rental at around $700 a month, “with the lack of available properties, the demand for housing is so high that, a house that should be renting at the 600 dollar mark is oftentimes upwards of $1,000.”
Grogan said the Housing Authority is looking to charge between $675 to $750 a month.
The Housing Authority has an account set up with Glacier Bank to accept cash donations, but Middleton and Grogan say they’ll take help in other forms too including materials for the upcoming renovations, or expertise.
Grogan says the more they can keep the renovation costs down, the less debt the Housing Authority takes on, opening up more affordable housing options.