Hot market puts pressure on housing crisis

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End-of-the-year reports indicate that a robust economy and low interest rates continue to power the local real-estate market to historic levels.

According to statistics through November from the Northwest Montana Association of Realtors, the median sale price for a home in Flathead County jumped a whopping 8.5% over the past year and currently sits at $329,950. That compares to a median price of $309,900 in December of 2018.

Total real estate sales are up, the average price per square foot is up, and gross sales ($2.84 billion in Northwest Montana) are up as well. Up, Up and Up.

This is all great news for residents lucky enough to own a slice of paradise, and contrasts sharply with the onslaught of foreclosures and sinking home values that plagued the housing market a decade ago. It’s been a long, steady road to recovery, and indicators point toward a continuing upward trend in 2020.

Of course, a booming real-estate market is a double-edged sword that can leave many folks standing on the homeownership sidelines.

Wage growth hasn’t kept pace with ever-increasing home prices, setting up a scenario that can force out the working class and ultimately change the entire makeup of a community. It’s an unfortunate reality that has already taken root in parts of the valley.

In Whitefish, for example, the median residential property has skyrocketed to $433,319 — a price that’s simply out of reach for the average Whitefish family with a household income of $51,059.

Whitefish sits alone at the top of the market, but Bigfork and even Columbia Falls (with median home prices of $380,000 and $312,000, respectively) are feeling the heat as well. In fact, a recent survey of community needs in Bigfork identified affordable housing as the “top community priority.”

Both Bigfork and Columbia Falls should keep an eye on Whitefish as it moves toward implementing its Legacy Homes Program, which requires that new developments include a certain percentage of affordable housing. It’s encouraging to point out that the first affordable multi-family rental property to be constructed in Whitefish since 2004 broke ground in late August, and a few more similar projects are on the horizon.

Only time will tell if Whitefish’s housing program is enough to turn the tide, but early indications suggest it could be a good model for Columbia Falls and Bigfork to follow.

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