Last October, 28-year-old Devynn Fetter returned home to her single trailer in Columbia Falls to find a pamphlet on her door that said the owners of the manufactured home park were selling and hoped to close by Christmas.
After an initial panic, Fetter soon learned that the brochure was from NeighborWorks Montana, a local nonprofit that helps homeowners fund manufactured home parks through a Resident Owned Community (ROC) program. Program officials offered to guide residents through the process, which would allow them to form a cooperative and an incorporated community that they would manage.
“At first it was a bit nerve-wracking,” Fetter said. “Where can you go to pay what we pay here? We all own houses, but we rent the land and I thought, “Oh my God, what if we decide not to incorporate? How will this affect us? What are we going to do?”
Fetter soon became acting chair of the board and began knocking on doors and telling her neighbors, many of them elderly, about the process. Twenty-seven of the 30 owners decided to incorporate and paid the one-time $100 membership fee and the neighborhood became the Hideaway Community after it closed in January.
Now that the Hideaway is resident-owned, owners no longer have to worry about a new owner buying the park and raising lot fees or evicting them.
“Resident ownership has many benefits,” said Danielle Maiden, ROC program manager at NeighborWorks. “Residents review and approve a budget every year and they can identify capital improvements and the budget for those… They also want to keep rent affordable and they are able to fluctuate those budgets. They know what’s coming for the next 12 months and they also know they won’t be kicked out for no reason. No one is going to sell the park or redevelop it. There is just a lot of stability in housing.
Maiden finalized a deal with the park’s former owners last year after negotiating the sale for residents at market value. For the benefit of the seller, they often work directly with the owner to avoid realtor fees and their Montana state capital gains are forgiven.
“Many park owners have great relationships with residents,” Maiden said. “A lot of families have created these communities and they enjoy their residences… Yes, there are financial coins, but they can get the same amount they would get from an investor by selling to residents.”
NeighborWorks is one of the few nonprofits guiding individuals and families in the Flathead Valley through Montana’s housing crisis, where the median sale price in Flathead County in January 2022 was 520,000. $ and $632,000 in Whitefish, according to MLS data.
In addition to ROCs, the nonprofit organization offers home equity loans where borrowers can put as little as 1% down. They also provide loans to Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs), which can raise grant funds, provide funding to affordable housing developers and housing education through HUD-approved agencies.
The Northwest Montana Community Land Trust is another subsidiary of NeighborWorks, which purchases properties to be held in trust as permanent affordable housing options. Similar to the ROC concept, buyers purchase the home itself, below market rate, while the land trust retains ownership of the land and landlords pay an affordable monthly ground lease.
But as local nonprofits help create an affordable path to small-scale homeownership, that doesn’t change the lack of housing in the Flathead Valley. As demand continues to rise, supply simply cannot keep up.
Last year, the City of Kalispell approved 2,209 multi-family units and 900 single-family townhouses.
Once developments are approved, it takes months to years for projects to start and many units that are nearing the end of construction were approved before the pandemic began.
The Landings, a 322-unit apartment complex off Two Mile Drive and a separate 144-unit apartment complex on Meridian Court were both approved pre-COVID and only recently became move-in ready, planners say .
While most of these units will be listed at market price and accommodate workforce housing, Kalispell City Council recently approved a 138-unit income-based multi-family development on North Meridian Road called Junegrass Place. , that the Montana Board of Housing has awarded $4.78 million in federal housing tax credits and will meet Section 8 bond standards.
In 2020, Kalispell approved a 36-unit affordable senior housing development called Creekside Commons, which also got tax credits.
“Housing is a national issue, it’s not just a Kalispell issue,” said Jarod Nygren, director of development services at Kalispell. “It stems from a lack of housing units… The only way out of this is to build more units and that is the policy direction that our council is driving. It’s the supply.
In 2020, the council voted to cut impact fees for developers to remove cost barriers, and although it drew criticism for driving up water and sewer rates for residents, it has helped attract more multi-family housing projects.
“If you look at the numbers from our previous reports when the impact fee was lowered, we’re now number one in the state for multi-family units,” Nygren said. “We had 150 building permits issued in 2020 and 650 in 2021. These are all under construction as we speak in addition to the 2,209 that are planned.”
But even after projects are approved and building permits issued, developers face many challenges that create a difficult environment to keep housing affordable.
In 2018, Whitefish City Council approved the Trail View subdivision, which is affiliated with the Whitefish Housing Authority, in the east of town in the hopes of building fully deeded single-family homes on 58 lots. The council set terms of 150% of the region’s median income.
When developer Jerry Dunker started the project, he listed prices ranging from $290,000 to $310,000 in homes around 1,300 square feet. But as supply chains disrupt lead times and material and labor costs continue to rise, prices are now above $350,000 to $370,000.
“We’re definitely selling them for less than cost, which isn’t sustainable,” Dunker said.
Dunker has sold half of the homes in Trail View and he hoped to complete construction by the end of the year, but delays pushed the finish date to at least 2024.
To recoup some of his losses, Dunker is now proposing to Whitefish City Council to remove 10 homes from the open market deed restriction.
“If we don’t draw 10, the other 29 units will have to be over $500,000,” Dunker said. “We do not have the choice.”
Dunker said he had been approached by buyers who wanted to donate the homes to the Whitefish Housing Authority to keep them affordable, but nothing was set in stone.
“I think the future for projects like this is that they will be a mix of free market and restricted acts,” Dunker said. “Use free market profits and use those for restricted act shortfalls. We went 100% from the start and in hindsight we should have done 10 or 20.”
For Fetter, she is grateful that NeighborWorks stepped in to help save some of the only low-income housing available in the Flathead Valley.
As her lot fees rose by $100 to $370 after being incorporated as an ROC for infrastructure improvements, including septic system upgrades, she’s relieved her rate likely won’t increase. many more in the years to come and that she and her neighbors will not be evicted.
As a full-time environmental health technician for the Flathead City-County Health Department, Fetter has an additional part-time job cleaning homes while she completes her studies for a bachelor’s degree in health science. in order to advance his career.
After living in her house for the past seven years, she cannot imagine how she would find a place to live if she were kicked out of the manufactured housing park.
“I would be this stereotypical almost 30-year-old who goes to live in my parents’ basement,” Fetter said. “Honestly, I was really concerned about it and didn’t feel like I had any other options to stay in the Flathead. I’m going to school to pursue my career in the health department, and everything It wouldn’t have helped.I’ve been in this position for almost four years now and I should have started over.