Creating ‘opportunity across the spectrum’
As the new housing trust executive director, David O’Connor tackles Big Sky’s No. 1 issue
By Bella Butler MANAGING EDITOR
BIG SKY – When David O’Connor helped establish the Big Sky Community Housing Trust around 2016, he was like a spectator after an explosion. He felt sorry for whomever would be in charge of sweeping up one of Big Sky’s biggest messes. Now, nearly a decade later, O’Connor is holding the broom himself, but with confidence and enthusiasm for the task at hand.
Effective May 1, O’Connor, a longtime Big Sky resident, stepped into the role of executive director of the Big Sky Community Housing Trust to replace now-retired Laura Seyfang.
Since its inception, the housing trust has implemented several programs and developments to alleviate pressure on Big Sky’s limited housing options by a few hundred units. But with an estimated need for more than 650 additional units to meet the workforce housing shortfall, O’Connor inherits the task of leading the community toward his vision of a more sustainable future of equal opportunity.
O’Connor’s new role at the trust marks somewhat of a full circle for him and the organization. Though it didn’t officially become an independent nonprofit until July of 2020, the nonprofit started as an effort of the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce around 2012, when O’Connor was chamber board chair. Even then, the chamber’s former executive director, Kitty Clemens, told EBS that Big Sky was “way behind the 8-ball.”
Big Sky’s housing crisis didn’t materialize for the first time in the mid-2010s—news articles dating back to the ‘90s address the issue—but it had reached a point where it was impacting business enough that the chamber saw fit to pursue solutions for begrudged business owners who were finding it more and more difficult to recruit and retain talent.
“We were trying to scratch our heads to figure out what we could bring to the table because it was one of those things like the weather … everybody complains about it but nobody ever does anything,” O’Connor said in a recent interview with EBS. “There just weren’t any mechanisms in place.”
The chamber commissioned a $60,000 study in 2013 from a land economics firm using resort tax monies it had been awarded the year prior. The study was the first of many that ultimately would impress upon O’Connor and his board a key takeaway: there is no single silver bullet to solve this conundrum.
“Our problem was—it is—very wide,” O’Connor said. “It’s not just that there’s one part of the community that’s underserved. It’s all of us.”
Eventually in 2016, the chamber and southwest Montana’s Human Resource Development Council announced the formation of the Big Sky Community Housing Trust. The first step for the board at the time was hiring an executive director, recalls Tim Kent, who served as the housing trust board’s president from its formation up until last month.
Seyfang, who had a part-time residence in Big Sky since 1997, moved full-time to Big Sky in 2017 with every intention of retiring. At the suggestion of friends who were familiar with Seyfang’s background and passionate volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity and like causes, she threw her name in the hat for the housing trust’s executive director position and was hired in fall of 2018.
“I’m a problem solver and a fixer,” Seyfang said. “That’s just kind of who I am.”
Though she sacrificed a few years of retirement, Seyfang characterizes her tenure with the housing trust as rewarding.
“If I look back, I feel like we learned a lot of things in those four years and took it from kind of nothing, of just a lot of people complaining … to I think we have a pretty solid path forward now,” Seyfang said. “That makes me feel proud of what the board and the team has accomplished in a short period of time.”
O’Connor said Seyfang’s work at the housing trust made him see the position in a different light and what lies ahead of him, comparatively, looks like “a walk in the park.”
“She’s put the organization in a place where now there’s a lot of irons in the fire, all at various different stages, but they’re all there firmly,” O’Connor said. “…The engines are started, now it’s time that we can start figuring out where they can take us.”
Those engines are currently built by a handful of programs and developments that have defined both the housing trust’s progress as well as its path forward.
The approaches have been diverse.
“Our [housing] problem was—it is—very wide. It’s not just that there’s one part of the community that’s underserved. It’s all of us.”—David O’Connor, executive director of the Big Sky Community Housing Trust
The MeadowView condos, a 52-unit deed-restricted development, originated with the housing trust and provided a more affordable homeownership opportunity to eligible buyers. The project was completed last summer and all units have been sold.
The trust is currently in the process of fundraising for RiverView Apartments, a collaborative 100-unit project between the housing trust and local developer Lone Mountain Land Company. The housing trust will develop 25 of the project’s deed-restricted rental units, and LMLC will develop the remaining 75.
Seyfang has said that while these developments are important, new construction, especially in the current market, is not an immediate solution to addressing housing woes at an adequate pace. In order to get units online for locals sooner, the housing trust has also launched two programs, Rent Local and Good Deeds, that incentivize homeowners to rent to locals as opposed to renting their properties on the increasingly lucrative short-term rental market, which has grown from 14 units in 2017 to nearing 1,000 last year, according to the housing trust.
O’Connor will assume responsibility for completing fundraising for RiverView, which after receiving $6.4 million in federal funds is still shy more than $2 million, according to Seyfang.
On top of these irons burning in the fire, O’Connor also inherits a grim reality: the housing trust reports that the average sales price was more than $2.6 million for a single-family home in Big Sky and more than $1.1 million for condos and townhomes, up 23 and 63 percent, respectively, from 2019.
Rent and utilities in Big Sky average $1,200 a month per bedroom, according to the trust, exceeding the widely accepted affordability metric of 30 percent of income based on the average Big Sky worker’s $22.18 per hour wage. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s OnTheMap resource, approximately 77 percent of Big Sky’s workforce lives outside of the area but is employed in Big Sky, only slightly moving the needle from the 83 percent reported in 2014.
Based on numbers originally calculated for a study conducted in 2018, recent estimates suggest Big Sky still needs more than 650 units to fill the current housing shortfall for its workforce.
Still, O’Connor approaches his new job with a devout intent to serve. A former co-owner of Bucks T-4 Lodge south of the junction of highways 191 and 64, O’Connor moved to Big Sky in the ‘90s and climbed what he called the Big Sky “housing tiers” over the years, from renting employee housing to purchasing his own home and eventually offering employee housing as an employer, but not without the help of the community.
The housing trust reports that the average sales price was more than $2.6 million for a single-family home in Big Sky and more than $1.1 million for condos and townhomes, up 23 and 63 percent, respectively, from 2019.
“There have to be those opportunities available still today and tomorrow,” he said. “This might have started as a conversation in the Chamber boardroom, but it has far-reaching implications that go way past just a business issue because it’s very much a quality of life issue for the whole community.”
Not being able to house full-time community members doesn’t just result in a quilt of “help wanted” signs on doors across town, O’Connor said, referencing the recent local election in which a total of eight candidates ran unopposed for eight local leadership positions. He suggests Big Sky must be able to support a well-rounded resident population to create more engagement in those local elections, to bring large-scale community projects to fruition and to overall be a livable community.
O’Connor looks around the space he’s being interviewed. He’s sitting in the lobby of the BASE community center, which opened its doors in March.
“Because well-rounded communities operate best, and they do things like this,” he said. “If we are a community just of seasonal workers and of retired second and third homeowners, we won’t be able to keep achieving the things that we’ve achieved with this building we’re sitting in.”
Above all growth, O’Connor said Big Sky needs to first and foremost be a place where people want to live.
“I have a vested self-interest here because I live here,” he said. “I want this to be that kind of community. In order for it to be that, there has to be opportunity across the spectrum.”