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Nathan Dugan's quest for affordable housing in Whitefish
Plus: A free hip-hop block party and festival takes over the Hip Strip in Missoula!
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Drawn by the pull of the West, Nathan Dugan, a native of Ohio, first moved to the ski town of Whitefish in 2015. But he only stayed for a year, pushed out by an unsatisfying job and the high cost of living. He bounced around the northwest before returning to Whitefish a couple of years ago, when he bought a fixer-upper in town with his partner, Mallory Phillips.
Like other towns across Montana and the country writ large, Whitefish—population 10,000—has witnessed a stark rise in housing prices in recent years. According to Movoto, the median house in Whitefish sold for $470,000 in August of 2018. At the market’s peak, in January 2023, the median cost had risen to $1.9 million.
That shift has fueled myriad and rapid effects on the town: pushing out renters, limiting the workforce and shifting the culture of the community.
In reaction to these dramatic shifts, Dugan and Phillips launched Shelter WF in April 2022 to advocate for more affordable housing in town.
In perhaps their biggest success to date, the organization helped rally support for a 150-unit housing development, some of which are deed-restricted; Whitefish city council signed off on the plan in June. The triumph follows a failed campaign to green-light the similar, albeit larger, Mountain Gateway development.
In July 2022, Dugan also joined Governor Gianforte’s housing task force, which crafted recommendations for the 2023 Legislature. The fruits of their labor include a suite of new bills that revise zoning policies in the state and facilitate denser housing construction.
And now, Dugan hopes to bring his mission to the Whitefish City Council. He’s running for one of the three open seats in this November’s election.
Although his platform also emphasizes public transportation and climate readiness, our conversation focuses on housing. Read on as Dugan unpacks the opposition to housing reforms that he encounters in Whitefish, highlights the town’s use of its resort tax, navigates the vilification of wealthy newcomers and more.
Max: Can you describe the conditions in Whitefish that inspired you and Mallory to launch Shelter WF?
Nathan Dugan: We just saw it as a real threat to the community going forward that young people were not able to come here and build a life like they were able to 20 or 30 years ago.
We also just realized that we were pretty lucky with our circumstances and timing to be able to buy our house. I couldn't buy the same house that I bought today for $200,000 less, because the interest rates [alone] are so high.
You basically have to be pretty well off. The largest age demographic in Whitefish is 50 to 59. These are people that have made a lot of money in their career and they're [often] beginning to sunset their career, and so they can be here and work remotely more than they could in the past.
It's always been hard to rent in Whitefish. But it became increasingly harder through the pandemic because there was such limited vacancy. Former homes that were affordable rentals were getting sold. I don't blame people for selling them. They had a house that a couple years ago was probably not worth very much, and now it's worth half a million dollars, $600,000. Why would you not take that, especially if you've owned it for a long time and you're getting ready to retire yourself?
So we saw those rentals go away. Most of the rentals that have gone away have gone to redevelopment of some sort. One of the bigger examples of that was an apartment complex that just got torn down recently that had 20 or 30 homes in it—that's going to be a hotel. It's not going to provide any sort of long-term housing.
In the fall of 2020, there was a proposal to build [the Mountain Gateway development]: a lot of apartments and with some deed-restricted, permanently affordable housing in it. And that got denied.
We were sitting in those meetings. And it's impossible when you go to a city meeting to not notice that everyone in the room basically fits the same demographic. And we know that everybody that lives in Whitefish is not a 50 year-old that’s [able to attend] at 7:00 PM on a Monday.
That's why we started Shelter WF. We wanted to change some of the trends that we were seeing because we think it's important for a strong community. And Whitefish prides itself on having this strong, more diverse community, and we're getting away from that.
What sorts of opposition do you encounter to housing reform in Whitefish, and how do you navigate them?
It’s the same opposition that you see everywhere else. At its root, it's a fear of change and a fear of the unknown. Generally, once an apartment building is actually built and it's there for six months or a year, nobody notices it anymore. The traffic concerns and everything else never materialize.
But those are the things that you hear constantly day in and day out at these meetings: it's going to be too many people, too much traffic; the infrastructure can't handle it, whether that's water, sewer, roads, whatever; the schools can't handle it; it's just going to change how the neighborhood feels. You could script it out, basically, what people will say because they say the same thing every single time.
The opposition tends to be very dehumanizing, in a way. [They’re] reducing the housing and the benefit that it has for people to how much traffic they're going to potentially produce or how loud they will potentially be.
On the other side, we try to humanize the issue and make it clear why it's a benefit for the community and for those people.
Your website acknowledges that there were “potential downsides” to the Mountain Gateway project. With that in mind, do you think that some of these criticisms have more merit than others?
Yeah, there can be some truth to those concerns at particular times. Undoubtedly Mountain Gateway could have caused there to be slightly more traffic on Big Mountain Road during a powder day, potentially.
That's also a lack of imagination and a lack of foresight and future planning and just not seeing the great opportunity that it creates to be able to have public transportation.
But for the most part [these concerns] are overblown. And even if they do present issues for a short period of time, I think the issues are solvable. But we just don't really do anything proactively anywhere in this country. And so there's not the motivation to spend the money or to do the work until the issue is so bad that it absolutely needs to get solved.
I recently interviewed Democratic state Rep. Kelly Kortum for the newsletter; he argued that the housing reform bills passed during the ‘23 Legislature won’t impact affordability, and will lead to more McMansions on big lots. What’s your take on that?
I appreciate Kelly's work during the session and his ability to do the work needed on these bills and definitely his votes to help get them passed.
I would disagree with that assessment a little bit. Definitely in the short term they're not going to have much impact on affordability. [But] they may have some impact on affordability five years, ten years, maybe even further down the line. I think that as an organization we definitely pushed back against [policies] that would allow for more urban sprawl, more single-family-home subdivisions outside of town.
The bills that we get really excited about are the things that increase the density on the lots to more than just one home. Our Senate Bill 245 is a multifamily bill. Senate Bill 323 is a duplex bill. It had some four-plex stuff in it for bigger cities at the beginning, and unfortunately that was taken out, but it’s something we're going to advocate for locally.
I agree that we didn't do anything to directly impact affordability in a rapid way. I don't think the market will ever serve below the middle class; you need subsidy to be able to provide housing that's stable and affordable for people on fixed incomes or people with lower incomes relative to what the market serves. And we didn't do any of that. We need to do that locally and we need to be able to do that at the state level, but I don't know if that's possible given the current makeup of the legislature and who sits in the governor's office.
Can you help explain what's going on with the resort tax in Whitefish? You flagged on Twitter that you don’t think it’s being used appropriately.
The city of Whitefish has 23.33% of its resort tax revenues dedicated to paying off a bond for the Haskill Basin Easement, which is the city's main water source. That will be paid off in 2025. And so there's all this extra money that's going to be available. And one thing that's been talked about for a while is putting some of that money towards affordable housing and affordable housing initiatives. [On August 7, Whitefish City Council green-lit a ballot initiative that, if it passes in November, will allocate 10% of resort tax revenue for community housing].
That is something that the city currently doesn't do, at least on a perpetual basis. And so it's definitely a step in the right direction. We definitely want to see that pass.
The issue that we're raising is that the state resort tax law requires that municipalities rebate at least 5% of those resort tax revenues back to property owners as property tax rebates, but in Whitefish, we rebate 25% of our resort tax revenues, way over the 5% minimum.
That was definitely needed when the resort tax first passed in the mid 90’s in Whitefish. The tax was probably also a lot more fair and a lot more equitable then: there were a lot more full-time residents living in Whitefish. Those homes were a lot less valuable than they are today.
That’s where the issue is for us: at least based on the 2022 housing needs assessment that they provided, 39% of homes in Whitefish have owners that don't live here in the area. They're not Whitefish locals or Whitefish area locals. I think it's a good guess that most of those homes are much more expensive than the homes of the other 61% of people who live here full-time.
[Remote owners] are getting a big chunk of these property tax rebates. We’re sending out of the community what I think amounts to over a million dollars a year, essentially.
Here’s an example: there’s a house that was built on the lake a couple years ago. I've never seen anybody there but workers. Last year, they got $7,400 back in this rebate.
I looked at every single property on my block and the average rebate for properties was just $238. It’s a block of full-time residents, renters and homeowners. That's the disparity that we're talking about. That home specifically is owned by somebody with a Park City, Utah address; should we be sending $7,400 to Park City, Utah, to subsidize this mansion on the lake in Whitefish? Or could we lower that percentage and evenly distribute it? I don't think there's anything that precludes it being evenly distributed amongst all property taxpayers.
In January, your county commissioners penned an open letter entitled “Stop Enabling Homeless Population.” Do you think their rhetoric precipitated the murder of Scott Bryan, a homeless man, in Kalispell earlier the summer?
Rhetoric like that is directly responsible. I don't think anybody would think about beating up homeless people or killing homeless people as we see happen from time to time—not just in Kalispell, but around the country—without them being dehumanized and "othered” as lazy drug addicts and people with mental health issues, which is not the case for most unhoused people on the streets.
It's not because people are lazy or whatever; it’s often a medical bill or a job loss or a divorce that precipitates it. Those are things that happen to a lot of us. It would behoove people to remember that when they're talking about this issue and thinking about it.
If I had a really rough year or two for whatever reason, and I didn't have my family or friends to help me out, I think that I—or any of us—could end up almost on the street at any point in time.
[Note: I asked Representative Courtenay Sprunger of Kalispell the same question in a recent interview with her. You can read her response here.]
Before we wrap up…I was thinking about the owner of that mansion that lives in Park City. I think the owners of those big fancy houses often get villainized. Needless to say, they are acting within their rights, no matter whether an individual agrees with the tax rebate policy or not. Do you detect that kind of anger, or vilification, among folks in town? If so, how do you navigate it?
As an organization, Shelter WF started off in a much more angry posture than we typically take now. [At the time] there was a new to town multi-billionaire that was very vocal about the Mountain Gateway project, Mark Jones. We thought that behavior was pretty reprehensible, to be honest.
But we definitely moved away from that posture. I think that [anger] is definitely something that we run into with our membership, and with people in town.
I'm fairly privileged. I own a home and am very stable in my situation. And so I don't feel [the threat of losing my home] directly, but people who feel that threat directly, it makes sense that they're a lot angrier about it. They need action much faster; they needed action ten years ago. And so I think that we should move faster as a city to action on these things and to use the limited funds that we have in ways that can truly help people and be impactful here with our local community in Whitefish.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
One more thing…
This Saturday, the Hip-Hop Black Party will transform Missoula’s Hip Strip into a mecca of music, merriment and munchies. Artists (including BSCH alum Yvng Vin!) will perform from noon to 10 PM.
Thanks so much for being here. In the meantime, you can always reach me via email, the comment section below, or on the Elon Machine, @SavageLevenson.