The last best house?

Searching for an affordable home of one’s own in Whitefish



Sometime during the year that my wife, Teauna, and I spent looking for a home in Whitefish, I picked up a copy of A House for Mr. Biswas, by V.S. Naipaul. The story, put simply, is a fictional account of Mr. Mohun Biswas and his lifelong search for a home on the island of Trinidad. Had I not been in the very same process in Whitefish, I’m not sure I would have understood how someone’s quest to find not just shelter, but ownership of that shelter and the patch of earth beneath it, could serve as a viable literary vehicle to carry a man’s life story.

After his father dies, Mr. Biswas, who is just a child at the time, is shuffled from home to home, eventually spending most of his time sharing homes with the Tulsis, his wife Shama’s family. The various Tulsi homes he lives in are always packed with members of the extended Tulsi family, who constantly invade his privacy, disrespecting and fighting with the ornery Biswas.

Mr. Biswas, who begins his working life as a sign painter and eventually becomes a reporter, searches for his own home, in which he hopes to find peace, quiet and a measure of respect.

“[H]e was struck again and again by the wonder of being in his own house,” Naipaul writes, “the audacity of it: to walk in through his own front gate, to bar entry to whoever he wished, to close his doors and windows every night, to hear no noises except those of his family…”

The satisfaction of owning our own piece of land, our own home, and the sense of finally having arrived that comes with it, certainly played a part in our desire to buy in Whitefish, but our reasoning was also driven by the booming market. Teauna and I had spent the last six years living in resort towns, watching other people make piles of cash on the real estate market as we worked the low-paying service jobs required to make a resort town run. Now it was time, we felt, for us to get more out of these towns than a paycheck that was just barely enough to keep us paying rent on someone else’s investment.

But as we discovered, it was nearly too late.

Out of reach
The first time I set foot in Whitefish was in 2003, while my wife and I took a short break from restaurant jobs in East Glacier Park. Whitefish had all the hallmarks of an ascendant resort town in the tradition of Aspen, Lake Tahoe or Vail, with its ski hill, burgeoning theater, nearby national park, beautiful lakes and quaint downtown. What it didn’t have, yet, were the ridiculous housing prices. In Crested Butte, Colo. and Ashland, Ore., the last two resort-type towns my wife and I had lived in (or as near to as we could afford), the price of an older, somewhat rundown home had moved into the $300,000 range. But flipping through a Whitefish real estate guide, I saw livable homes for under $100,000.

We had a feeling that right then was the time to buy in Whitefish, but we didn’t have the resources, and what we did have we were saving for an extended trip to South America.

As fate would have it, one year later, after leaving East Glacier Park and taking our trip to South America, we found ourselves back in Whitefish, where I had gotten a job as a reporter.

We knew we’d be living in Whitefish for a while; we both had decent jobs, and we figured this was our chance to buy a home.

But by then the local housing market had left us in the dust.

A quick look at a few numbers shows how unlikely it is that the average Flathead resident could purchase a house anywhere in the valley, let alone Whitefish.

In 2000, the median price of a home in Whitefish was $128,000. By 2005 it had risen to $325,000, a 154-percent increase. For Flathead County as a whole, the median home price rose from $125,000 in 2000 to $214,000 in 2005—a 71-percent increase. In that same time period, the median wage had risen just 8.8 percent, to $37,000.

The effect of these numbers can be seen throughout the community.

Douglas Rauthe, director of Northwest Montana Human Resources, a nonprofit organization that funnels federal, state and private money to help the poor in Northwest Montana, says there’s currently a three- to four-year waiting list for Section 8 HUD housing, a federal program that provides subsidies to low-income renters and homeowners.

Meanwhile, The Samaritan House, Flathead County’s largest homeless shelter, has already broken last year’s record of 205 people turned away for lack of space; the shelter has turned away 259 as of Sept. 21. In Whitefish, the recent sale of the Greenwood Trailer Court, which closed for good Aug. 15, sent 62 people out looking for affordable housing. SueAnn Grogan, director of the Whitefish Housing Authority, says she tried to help them find homes in Whitefish, but ultimately, she says, only five were able to stay in town. The former trailer court now looks like a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with the detritus of a displaced population—a rusty grill, a plastic baseball bat, a porch with no home attached, plastic bags, boxes, kitchen utensils and empty trailers—still littering the land.

The region’s lack of affordable housing also appears to contribute to a problem increasingly facing Flathead employers: finding workers.

Kalispell City Manager Jim Patrick says he’s had difficulty hiring for city positions as a result of housing prices.

“We’re seeing it across the board,” he says. For example, Patrick notes, the city’s sewage treatment plant is currently understaffed. Recently, he says, the city found a candidate who agreed to take an open position there, but when the candidate couldn’t find an affordable home nearby, the deal fell through. The city, Patrick says, had offered $15 per hour for the job.

The Flathead County Planning Board addressed the affordable housing problem Sept. 14, during a work session on the county’s proposed new growth policy, when board members demanded that the policy contain a specific goal calling for “safe housing that is available, accessible and affordable.”

In August, the Flathead posted its lowest unemployment rate ever: 2.7 percent. Virginia Sloan, a business advocate for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Job Services office in Kalispell, currently has listings for more than 500 jobs available in the Flathead. Sloan believes that lack of affordable housing is a contributing factor to the large number of open positions.

It’s an issue that Cal Scott, chairman of the Northwest Montana Association of Realtors (NMAR) Affordable Housing Task Force, thinks the valley needs to get under control.

“Anyone who says affordable housing is not an advantage to the community is extremely ignorant,” Scott says. “It provides stability, equity, upward mobility, pride and a sense of community.”

A terrible thing
In Naipaul’s book, the closest Biswas comes to affordable housing, besides cramming into a home with as many members of his extended family as possible, is when he uses scrap materials in an attempt to build his home on land he doesn’t own. Each such attempt ends in miserable failure.

In 2004, while covering city council meetings in Whitefish, I learned about the city affordable housing program, administered by the Whitefish Housing Authority (WHA) with help from the Glacier Affordable Housing Foundation (GAHF).

Since 1995, the best way to get into an affordable home in the Flathead was through GAHF. The program makes supplementary loans of up to approximately $40,000 dollars to individuals and families earning 80 percent or less of the county’s median income. The money is obtained through federal grants and then donated to GAHF. People using GAHF to fund their home purchase make no payments on the GAHF loan, which doesn’t accrue interest. Instead, when buyers eventually sell or refinance the homes, the loan is repaid, along with a percentage of any profit, based on what percentage of their total mortgage the GAHF loan covered. With help from GAHF, the most expensive home a family could purchase would cost about $140,000.

WHA can add another $54,000 loan on top of that, giving prospective Whitefish homeowners a shot at a $194,000 house.

The problem these days, according to Lynn Moon, a consultant who oversees GAHF’s daily operations, is that there are few homes in the Flathead Valley selling for less than $140,000, and few in Whitefish selling for less than $194,000.

“We are seeing a lot of folks who are able to qualify, but are unable to find a home,” she says.

SueAnn Grogan kept running into the same problem.

In 2004, Grogan, with the help of several sympathetic locals, was able to convince the Whitefish City Council to adopt a program allowing developers to build at 50-percent greater density in their subdivisions in exchange for building 10 percent of their housing stock in the affordable-housing price range ($160,000 or less). Developers can also opt to pay WHA cash in lieu of affordable homes, to the tune of $6,000 per affordable unit not built.

At about the same time, in order to create homes for people who qualify for GAHF and WHA loans, Grogan formed Whitefish Housing Development Incorporated (WHDI), through which affordable homes could be built and sold to people who qualified for GAHF and WHA assistance.

The affordable housing programs seemed like an opportunity for Teauna and me. During the winter of 2005 we filled out the necessary paperwork, hoping to land one of the new townhomes being built in north Whitefish by WHDI. They were scheduled for completion sometime around the beginning of June, and Teauna and I were near the top of the list of people eligible for one.

And then a terrible thing happened, sort of. My wife’s employer offered her a promotion. A promotion that would pay her a bit better. Normally, this would seem like a promising development, but in fact, it would effectively disqualify us from any help through Whitefish’s affordable housing programs. The programs were only allowed to aid people making 80 percent of the median income or less. Before the promotion, we were just below that mark. With the raise, we’d be just over it. We actually discussed the possibility of her declining the job, or at least the raise that came with it, in order to qualify for affordable housing. Ultimately, we decided such a move would be as ridiculous as it sounded.

Grogan hopes to have this conundrum, wherein people make too much to qualify for affordable housing assistance but not enough to buy a home without it, solved in the near future. One Whitefish developer so far has chosen to make the cash payout in lieu of building affordable homes in his new subdivision. Once construction begins he will pay out nearly $250,000 to WHA. Grogan says she’ll be able to use that money to expand the program to offer assistance to people who make up to 120 percent of the area’s median income.

WHDI built five affordable housing units in 2005, and is currently working on two more. But once these homes pass from WHDI to their new owners, WHDI has no control over their future affordability. It seems likely to Grogan, given current market trends, that the home’s future sale prices will exceed the affordable range.

In order to keep up with the market, Grogan says, she began working this spring on a plan to develop a land trust. The trust would own the land beneath the WHDI homes. When the homes sell, the land would stay in the trust’s hands, there would be a cap on the price the homes could sell for, and the homes could only be sold to families or individuals who qualified for affordable housing programs.

“This gives us a permanent affordable housing stock,” Grogan says.

WHDI has already purchased two lots on the corner of Armory Road and Second Street, and Grogan says that when they go on the market next spring, she hopes to have them in a land trust.

Cal Scott is also working on a plan to build entire developments of affordable homes in Flathead County next year, with the help of a new affordable housing task force he’s convening.

Scott says demand for affordable housing in the Flathead can be met through higher density, alternative construction methods and clustered housing. Scott specifically envisions developments where, for instance, 12 modular homes would be clustered together at the center of a five-acre lot, surrounded by open space, yards and parks. He estimates that he can build homes in such a development for $113,000 each, well within the affordable housing range. This is for two-to-three bedroom, 1,000- to 1,400-square-foot homes. He hopes to be building the first development by next fall. While she tries to solve market-related problems, Grogan is also still working out kinks in the current WHDI program. After successfully building its first two townhomes, WHA started working on three more, on a lot adjacent to the first two on Waverly Street.

Rather than hiring a construction manager for the first two townhomes, Grogan herself had overseen their construction. Everything had come out fine, and so she went on to oversee the building of the three new townhomes. But these had a different design and a different builder, and they were constructed in the fall and winter rather than over the summer. In December, the new homeowners were allowed to move in, before the homes had even been completed.

Within weeks, the crawl spaces beneath the Waverly Street townhomes began flooding, homeowners discovered mold in the attics, and the siding began to buckle.

The problems were caused by a variety of circumstances and mistakes. According to Grogan, lumber used in the attics got damp before the homes were finished, then an unusually wet winter set in, and with the heat on conditions were ripe for mold to flourish. The flooded crawl spaces were apparently brought about by an oversight; when plans for the homes were changed from slab foundation to crawl space, sump pumps were not drawn in. Marguerite Amstadt purchased one of the homes and moved in on Dec. 28, 2005. “It’s been a trying nine months,” she says now. “I wish I were just telling you that I was extremely happy to be here.” Since the problems were discovered, WHDI has spent about $27,000 fixing the homes, Grogan says. The mold has been abated, the siding is being replaced and sump pumps have been retrofitted into the crawl spaces. Amstadt says things are moving in the right direction with the townhomes now, but adds, “No one else should have to go through this.”

Occupants of the two other townhomes declined to speak with the Independent at length. One of them, Michelle Howke, would only say, “I’m happy to be there.”

WHDI is still trying to establish exactly who is responsible for the problems, Grogan says. In the meantime, she says she’s learned from the experience. She plans to hire a construction manager to oversee the building of all future WHDI homes.

In the summer of 2005, even though we had already been excluded from the affordable housing program, Teauna and I couldn’t help but accept an invitation to an open house at the first WHDI townhomes.

They were exactly the sort of homes we had hoped for, spacious, with plenty of large windows, wood accents, shiny new appliances and other accoutrements attractive to longtime apartment dwellers.

The adjoining townhome had already been purchased by Kelly Medelman, Glen Phillips and their two daughters, 5-year-old Sophie, and 2-year-old Molly. They had run into a dilemma similar to ours just before closing on one of the WHDI townhomes: Phillips’ job had offered him a raise, and he decided to reject it in the interest of securing the home his family now occupies.

After seeing the townhomes, Teauna and I couldn’t help but wonder if she should have passed on her promotion as well.

House fever
Against all odds, Mr. Biswas does eventually find a house.

By then he’s in his 40s and still working as a reporter. He, his wife, and their four children had just gotten kicked out of the partitioned section of a room they rented in a home with more than a dozen members of his wife’s extended family. In his haste to find a new home, Biswas gets screwed. He inspects a prospective dwelling too quickly, his eagerness gets the best of him and he makes a quick decision to buy.

It’s only after they move in that he and his family begin to discover the problems. The house gets unbearably hot on sunny days (Biswas looked at it once during the evening, and once during a rain storm), none of the windows close all the way, the pillars supporting a staircase to the second floor are nearly rotted through, none of the doors fit into their frames correctly and therefore either open on their own or don’t open at all. The flaws become so depressing that the family stops mentioning the new ones.

Teauna and I swore we wouldn’t let reality-clouding house fever get to us like it did to Mr. Biswas, that we wouldn’t let our excitement fool us into buying the first house we could get a mortgage on. So at first we stuck to houses that weren’t in dire need of repair. While checking out garage sales one Saturday in the summer of 2005, we noticed a small, newer house with a for-sale sign in front. When we stopped to write down the agent’s phone number, the owner came out and invited us to come in and look around. The home was small, about 900 square feet with two bedrooms and one bathroom, but in great shape, reminding us of the townhomes WHDI built. We hoped the small size of the house would keep it in our price range. But when we finally asked, we learned it was going for $195,000. The largest loan we’d likely be approved for was $170,000. In general we found that homes in decent states of repair were beyond our means, so it wasn’t long before we lowered our standards. One house near downtown Whitefish fell within our upper limit at $150,000.

On the day we went to look at it, we arrived a bit earlier than the real estate agent, but a man renting the home saw us standing out front and invited us in. Right away, he pointed out the huge heating unit that took up part of the living room, telling us it managed to keep that room too hot, but never seemed to warm the bedrooms. By the time the real estate agent arrived, the renter was showing us the huge, slightly crooked, single-pane picture window that the owners, he said, had installed themselves.

Under the watchful eye of the real estate agent, we glanced into the tiny bedrooms, and then the renter suggested we might want a look at the basement. There we found buckling concrete walls and a dead packrat on the floor.

“My cat kills like two of these a week,” the renter informed us.

Surprisingly, the real estate agent seemed only slightly annoyed that the renter was selling him out. It turned out someone else had already made an offer on the house. He said he’d call if they didn’t buy. The agent never did, but I’m embarrassed to admit that we had hoped he would.

This was just the first in a string of dilapidated homes we considered during the course of our search. There was one with a floor tilted so badly you could set a marble at one end of the living room and watch it roll across the floor into a corner of the kitchen. Another had holes—big, cannonball-sized holes—punched into the walls and doors.

Finally, in the fall of 2005, we signed a buy-sell agreement on a $170,000 home. An inspection, completed before we signed the agreement, showed that its foundation was collapsing, that parts of the floor were kept from bowing by tree trunk cross-sections jammed under the house, that the plumbing needed replacement, as did much of the electrical wiring. We signed anyway, and put down $1,000 to show we were serious.

Had we gone through WHA or GAHF, none of these homes would have been an option. Both have strict guidelines as to the condition of the homes they lend money on. “Fixer-uppers” don’t make the cut.

But Teauna and I considered it an advantage that we could consider the more rundown homes, figuring we could do enough of the repair work ourselves to make a home livable, and that the way housing prices were trending in Whitefish, our home would eventually be worth a bigger pile of cash than we paid for it no matter what state it was in.

This felt like exactly what Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan meant when he described the “irrational exuberance” of the mid-’90s American economy.

Our house fever was a combination of perhaps too much faith in the market and the blinding desire to get into our own home, both of which allowed us to overlook the obvious problems with this particular home.

But Teauna and I got lucky. When the appraiser came to check out the ruin of a home on which we had signed the buy-sell agreement, he noticed all the faults our inspector had, and refused to appraise it at $170,000. This, of course, made it impossible for us to get a loan, and just like that we were back to house hunting.

Home at last Mr. Biswas and his wife ultimately found their home, and they eventually learned to ignore all its problems, and Mr. Biswas experiences pride of ownership at last.

“[Biswas] found himself in his own house, on his own half-lot of land, his own portion of the earth,” Naipaul writes. “That he should have been responsible for this seemed to him, in these last months, to be stupendous.”

Teauna and I found our home, too. One day last November we saw that the townhome adjoining the small but newer one we had looked at that summer, the one selling for $195,000, was on the market for $185,000, even though it was virtually identical to the more expensive one. We asked our real estate agent to try offering $170,000. She seemed slightly embarrassed to do this. I was embarrassed to ask her. But, we figured, what the hell? Amazingly, the answer was yes. They’d take $170,000.

So now, after maxing out our mortgaging capability, we’ve managed to hold on to a barely affordable home for nearly a year.

Naipaul puts a damper on Mr. Biswas’ victory by killing him off at the age of 46, just a few years after he finally gets his own home. The early demise makes Mr. Biswas’ struggle seem a bit pointless and sad, especially since he still owed a lot of money on the house. But still, Naipaul writes: “How terrible it would have been…to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth; to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.”

I’d be quite disappointed if buying this home turns out to be the last meaningful thing I do, but I do identify with feeling “unnecessary and unaccommodated” in a resort town. By finally owning a piece of land, and a tiny place to live on top of it, we’ve become more than just transient workers, ready to blow out of town when the seasons change, leaving nothing behind and taking nothing with us. Now we’ve got a stake in this town, we’ve hitched our wagon to its future. Now we’re just hoping the market doesn’t crash.

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