By Joseph T. O’Connor ExploreBigSky.com Editor
BIG SKY – Ideas flew around the lower room of the Big Sky Chapel on Feb. 27 as major players on local, state and federal levels convened for an ideas exchange, set up to address the lack of housing options in Big Sky.
The Big Sky Chamber of Commerce sponsored and organized the meeting, described by chamber executive director Kitty Clemens as a “look at housing as an economic development tool.”
“Businesses [in Big Sky] have told me they need to hire talented people, but there are not enough places for talented people to live,” Clemens said.
Meeting attendees expressed concern over housing for seasonal employees, many of whom work at one of the three ski resorts in the area. But young professionals were a main focus of the meeting – and an important demographic to the community, according to local resident Norm Plaistowe, who attended the exchange.
“This is a huge issue in Big Sky,” said the retired CFO of North American Publishing Company in Chicago. “If we can’t provide housing at an affordable rate, [young professionals] are not going to live here.”
A Chicago transplant, Plaistowe and his wife Kristen Brown have been in Big Sky for two years. Housing, he says, has been a problem since they moved to the area.
The meeting, attended by approximately 30 people from as far away as Helena, included representatives from the offices of Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester as well as Gov. Steve Bullock’s office. Also in attendance were delegates from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Gallatin County Planning Department and a number of local builders and developers from Big Sky Resort, the Yellowstone Club, Moonlight Basin and Town Center.
The exchange began with addresses by Clemens and co-sponsor Shawna Winter, then moved to a break-out, in which small groups discussed four main housing elements the chamber felt needed attention: government, building and development, finance tools and community values.
The groups came up with talking points and reported them to the conference. These included assessing other resort communities’ methods for dealing with housing issues, the call for a professional assessment of Big Sky’s needs, and an option to put costs of property lots into a land trust. This option would provide relief to land buyers by reducing the total purchase cost by the price spent on land.
Say a house costs $250,000 to build, Plaistowe said. “The first $100,000 would go to the land. It’s very different to build a house for $150,000.”
One idea suggested distressed or vacant homes be divided into two or three separate condos, which could be made available to individuals or families.
With many of these options funding is critical, and the Big Sky Resort Tax Board could be tapped for money. The deadline for applications requesting money from the RTB is April 3.
Another topic was creating a housing authority or an economic development district in Big Sky, which are both federally funded and developed to provide solutions in the forms of affordable housing options, including section eight accommodations. Section eight refers to federal financial assistance given to low-income tenants.
But Clemens made it clear that section eight housing would not be the focus of either a local housing authority or an economic development district.
“We’re not necessarily talking about dormitory-style, seasonal housing here,” she said. “These groups can provide technical assistance for economic development in the form of affordable housing.”
The groups discussed options, but the next step was unclear to some.
“My question is, what do we do now?” said Tim Skop, a planner for the Gallatin County Planning Department. “This meeting has been done three or four times and nothing becomes of it. The issues resurface and then it’s time to have another meeting.”
Tracy Menuez, of Bozeman’s Human Resources Development Council, suggested Big Sky’s Resort Tax Board fund a capital improvements plan to assess the community’s needs, but Skop had one in his satchel, completed by TischlerBise on Dec. 28, 2011. Clemens also had printouts of the plan available at the meeting.
The Capital Improvements Plan for the Gallatin Canyon/Big Sky Planning and Zoning District states: “…A range of affordable housing types are needed in Big Sky including seasonal employee accommodations, affordable rental units and low-cost, single-family housing.”
Additionally, TischlerBise projected an increase of 268 jobs in Big Sky over the next 10 years, according to the report. The plan also indicated that between 34 and 135 housing units would need to be built to accommodate new employees in the area.
Eric Amundson, from HUD’s Helena Field Office, said he attended the meeting because of the way Clemens presented the idea – that it isn’t just lower income workers who are experiencing housing problems.
“This [ideas exchange] seemed like a unique challenge,” he said. “[It’s] targeting two groups – emerging young professionals who need affordable housing and seasonal employees.”
The Department of Housing and Urban Development was created as a federal Cabinet department in 1965 to provide affordable housing and oversee related policies. Two of its programs are relevant to the issues in Big Sky:
Competitive programs, of which Amundson says there are more than 40 in the country, are need-based allotments; applicants compete with other communities around the nation for funds.
Entitlement programs refer to money handed down from the federal level to areas with more than 50,000 residents. In Montana, these include Billings, Great Falls and Missoula. Other funding from the program goes to the state and is divvied out to smaller communities, based on need.
At times the meeting took on a personal tone. Clemens had difficulty finding housing when she moved here in August, having to fill out three different leases for the same condo. Her problems stemmed from a lack of dog-friendly rental opportunities.
Bill Farhat, Chief of the Big Sky Fire Department, also had trouble finding a place to live.
“I just found a house yesterday,” said Farhat, who was told he, along with his wife and four children, had to be out of their rental home by May, because the owners had to sell the house.
“We were really worried,” he said. “But I’m the highest-paid employee at the department. What does that mean for my employees?”
Farhat hopes to hire five new firefighters this spring and is concerned about where they will live. Unlike many Big Sky workers who commute from Bozeman or Four Corners, fire department staff must live in the area.
Before the next meeting, Big Sky and Moonlight Basin plan to survey their employees to find out which ones live in the immediate community, who commutes, and who wants to live in Big Sky.
Clemens also encouraged attendees to research how ski communities such as Jackson, Wyo. and Vail, Colo. have dealt with housing issues.
The meeting represented a broad interest in improving housing options available to Big Sky workers, and many in attendance voiced the importance of the community tackling this issue together.
“There needs to be a more collaborative effort instead of one group chipping away,” Skop said. “Everybody’s smarter than anybody.”
The next housing ideas exchange meeting will be on March 27. The chamber has reserved the lower room in the Big Sky Chapel from 8 a.m. to noon.