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Housing survey to inform plan for action

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By Margo Magnant EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – The results of the most comprehensive housing survey ever conducted in Big Sky were presented to the community in a public meeting at the Big Sky Sewer and Water building on Feb. 28.

“We don’t work with communities unless they’re ready to take action,” said Wendy Sullivan of Jackson, Wyoming-based WSW Consulting. Sullivan was hired last fall by the Big Sky Community Housing Trust to conduct the survey and prepare a subsequent Housing Action Plan, expected to be released in early June.

In summary, the survey results, which aggregate over 1,000 responses-an “excellent” response rate according to the survey-reaffirm that housing is a “serious, and likely critical, problem” for the community.

Among the most eye-opening results is that more than 400 renter households (40 percent of those surveyed) have been displaced within the past five years due to the owner selling their rental or converting it to a short-term vacation rental. That’s nearly four times the number in Mammoth Lakes, California, according to the results of a similar survey, also conducted by WSW in 2017.

Sullivan believes two main factors are to blame for this high number in Big Sky: the lack of regulation on short-term rentals and the lack of apartment buildings. The latter, she said, are less likely to be individually owned and provide a “more stable source of housing” than homes or condos.

However, Sullivan did note that the level of engagement from employers of all sizes on the housing issue is also unique to Big Sky. “Employers are doing a lot,” she said, “unfortunately they just can’t keep up with the markets.”

Additionally, the survey addresses the need for the community to direct its development efforts in way that addresses housing needs. More housing is needed, but according to Sullivan, “There is a need to focus on not just housing [units] for locals, but homes for locals-what they need to be happy and to grow here.”

“Big Sky needs more employee-friendly housing,” said one survey respondent, “Bozeman is too far to realistically commute, and Big Sky loses out to other resorts of similar quality because of it.”

The data also validates an anecdotal reality in Big Sky: the necessity to have multiple jobs and/or roommates to afford a rental. “It’s one thing to read through the stats and see the numbers,” said Sarah Gaither, operations manager at the Big Sky Community Food Bank. “It’s another thing to look into the face of a person who is actually spending 51 percent of their income on rent. You see insecurity; you see stress; you see fear … and you understand that they’re one fender-bender … away from losing everything.”

As for next steps, a nearly 20-person working group has already held its first meeting, led by Sullivan and Christine Walker of Navigate, LLC, to apply the survey results to formulate a plan for action. In addition to BSCHT advisory committee board members, the working group includes community stakeholders, including representatives from the planning boards of Gallatin and Madison counties.

“The goal is to prioritize and develop tools and strategies, and to make them workable,” Sullivan said. “To figure out how to get this done-aas opposed to more discussion on why this should happen.”

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