By Joseph T. O’Connor ExploreBigSky.com Editor
BIG SKY – New data affirms what many residents already know: It’s hard to find affordable housing in Big Sky.
A recent survey of people employed in the community shows that nearly 90 percent of the 150 respondents say it’s difficult or impossible to find local housing in their price range.
Kitty Clemens, executive director for the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce and facilitator of an effort to address area housing shortages and costs, announced the survey results on March 27, at the second housing ideas exchange meeting in the Big Sky Chapel.
The Chamber of Commerce plans to ask the Big Sky Resort Tax Board for $80,000 this year to fund a housing study, which would necessitate hiring attorneys, real estate economists and engineers to conduct research and legal work, Clemens said.
Little has been done since 1996 to address housing problems since Gallatin County/Big Sky zoning regulations identified a number of accommodations goals, according to Ryan Hamilton, project manager for Big Sky Town Center. He supports the $80,000 housing study request.
“Everyone is saying let’s do this, but we need funding,” said Hamilton, who was part of a group that asked the chamber to act as an impetus to fix the issue. “The problem is there’s a housing shortage, but we need to identify [specific] problems. The first step is part of the solution.”
The approximately 25 meeting attendees represented federal and state government offices and regional development groups, as well as local real estate brokers, developers and builders.
The survey link initially was posted on the chamber’s website, printed in the March 22 issue of the Weekly and distributed via email to those who attended the first meeting. The survey also asked if the workers in Big Sky live in the area, what their median income is, where they spend their money and on what.
According to the survey, 80 percent of respondents live in Big Sky and spend between 40 and 60 percent of their monthly income on housing.
“If they’re spending closer to 40 percent, they may qualify for a loan to buy a house,” Clemens said. “[But this shows] we don’t have enough housing in lower price points and have high rental rates. It’s an issue in Big Sky, but also in the entire country – too many people have to spend too much of their income on housing.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on its website defines affordable housing:
The generally accepted definition of affordability is for a household to pay no more than 30 percent of its annual income on housing. Families who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered cost burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care.
“We feel the struggles local residents are having,” said Denny Lenoir, at the meeting representing U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont. “We need some incentives for people to live [in Big Sky].”
To get a broader sense of whether Big Sky employees live in the immediate area or in other places such as Bozeman and why, Clemens wants more people to fill out the survey.
“We need to get more respondents who live outside of Big Sky,” Clemens said, pointing out that the survey is still available online at research.net/s/bigsky.
At this second housing ideas exchange, Clemens addressed the importance of affordable housing in Big Sky. “Montanans and visitors value our land and open spaces,” she said. “We want to encourage development that discourages sprawl.”
She also set up three subcommittees to focus on specific local housing issues: development and finance, inventory, and government zoning and regulations. These subcommittees will meet separately, addressing issues pertaining to their specific groups.
Philip Kedrowski, an engineer and owner of Redleaf Consulting in Big Sky, attended the housing meeting as both a local business owner and a concerned resident.
“I believe in the goal of it,” said Kedrowski, who ran Redleaf out of his Bozeman house before buying office space at the Health and Fitness building in the Meadow Village. “This is something Big Sky needs.”
Kedrowski says he’ll need to hire an employee eventually, and he’s worried about what it will cost him if that person wants to live in Big Sky.
“An engineer is a professional job, and the reality is I’ll have to pay them $40,000-$50,000 a year. It’s basically unaffordable even for professional people making a real wage to live [in Big Sky] – the people I know that own here, inherited money.”
Kedrowski now rents out his four-bedroom, 2,000-square foot house in Bozeman, and is leasing a room in a condo behind Milkie’s bar. He wants to buy a home in Big Sky, but says he can’t afford it.
“I can probably sell my house [in Bozeman] for $250,000. But a similar house in Big Sky would cost $100,000 more.”
The most recent Big Sky home Kedrowski looked into is a 4-bedroom, 2-story at 500 Rainbow Trout Run with square footage similar to that of his Bozeman house. The asking price is $349,000.
Kedrowski says studies, such as the one proposed by the Chamber of Commerce, have been done before, and that the money would be better spent by looking at communities such as Jackson, Wyo. and Vail, Colo., and what solutions they’ve found to provide affordable housing.
“If the RTB funds this study, it needs to have action items,” Kedrowski said. “We already know there’s a problem. More action, less study.”
Mike Scholz, RTB member and co-owner of Buck’s T-4, also attended the meeting, anticipating a request for board funding. Scholz agreed with Kedrowski.
“I want to know what is going to be the result of having a consultant [conduct a study]. Instead of gathering more information about the problem, it needs to advance a solution,” he said. “Resort tax is not just free money – it needs to be earned.”
Housing ideas exchange meetings will occur on the fourth Wednesday of every month; Clemens says she will also organize an evening meeting for those unable to attend daytime gatherings.