Affordable housing crunch felt acutely in Bigfork

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  • Renee Elsen outside her residence in Bigfork on Friday, Dec. 27. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Crestview Apartments on Crestview Drive in Bigfork on Friday, Dec. 27. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Jewel Basin Court apartments in Bigfork on Dec. 27. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

  • Renee Elsen outside her residence in Bigfork on Friday, Dec. 27. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Crestview Apartments on Crestview Drive in Bigfork on Friday, Dec. 27. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Jewel Basin Court apartments in Bigfork on Dec. 27. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

Bigfork is known for its charming downtown corridor and proximity to Flathead Lake. But the community members that help drive the local economy are finding it increasingly difficult to live in Bigfork because of a lack of affordable housing.

At a Bigfork Town Hall meeting in October, community representatives discussed a recent survey of community needs and priorities for the future of the area.

“The top community priority was affordable housing — by far,” said nonprofit consultant Chany Ockert.

An “affordable residence” is one that a household can obtain with 30% or less of its income, according to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

To meet this standard, monthly rent just over $400 would be considered affordable for a worker earning the Montana minimum wage of $8.50 per hour. Wages tend to be slightly higher than the minimum in the resort town of Bigfork, but even then, monthly rent of $480 would be considered affordable for someone earning $10 per hour. For a worker earning $15 an hour — widely regarded as the national minimum living wage — a $720 per month rental rate would be considered affordable.

In Bigfork, one-bedroom apartments are hard to come by for less than $1,000 a month, and most cost a few hundred dollars more than that. The median residential home price in Bigfork from November 2018 to 2019 was $379,750, according to Northwest Montana Multiple Listing Service. The median price in Kalispell during the same time-frame was $299,500.

At these prices, it can be nearly impossible for employees at restaurants and hotels, as well as teachers, paramedics and other essential personnel to find affordable rental properties, let alone permanent homes in Bigfork.

“There are a lot of folks who need rentals,” Ockert observed, but she said most can only find options in the range of $1,200 per month. “That’s out of reach for a lot of people.”

The Flathead Valley has experienced significant growth in the past few years, and with that has come a general shortage of affordable-housing options. But in Bigfork, the small size, high cost of land, limited number of multi-family units and restrictive housing covenants make the issue especially acute.

“Overall, there’s such a need valley-wide, but we really see it in Bigfork,” noted Katie Brown, a Realtor with Glacier Sotheby’s International Realty.

The unincorporated town of Bigfork has a population of 4,270 people, according to the most recent census data from 2010. As of Dec. 20, 2019, there were 153 active residential listings in Bigfork, with another 24 under contract but taking back-up offers.

Between the town’s small size and limited availability, the housing options simply do not meet the demand in Bigfork.

“We don’t have the inventory here,” Brown stated. “Those that want to be a part of this community can’t find a place to live.”

Multi-family residences are particularly scarce in Bigfork. Little Jon Apartments on Grand Drive are the only low-income, subsidized rentals available in Bigfork, and residents need to meet certain low-income qualifications to live there.

Otherwise, apartment buildings are virtually nonexistent in Bigfork, and the few available options do not fall under the “affordable housing” designation. The Jewel Basin Court apartment complex that was completed in 2019 at the corner of Montana 35 and 83 features six multi-unit buildings, and these two-bed, two-bathroom apartments start at $1,250 a month.

These prices would be considered affordable for two people making approximately $12 per hour each in a shared unit, but they are beyond the price range of workers making less than that or people who would prefer to live alone.

“They rent for a premium,” Ockert said. “The original conversation around town was that they would be affordable.”

Of course, the attractions that make Bigfork a tourist destination also drive up the cost to live there. “Bigfork is somewhat of a resort market,” Brown said, so expensive properties are part of “the nature of any kind of resort community.”

To that end, housing covenants have been put in place in Bigfork that all but guarantee inaccessibility for low- and moderate-income earners. Ockert related many housing covenants in Bigfork require homes to be a minimum of 1,200 to 1,500 square feet with at least a two-car garage. “That doesn’t allow for families that are just starting out,” she pointed out.

Young families aren’t the only ones challenged by these restrictions.

“It’s a community issue,” Ockert stressed. “It’s not only just for workers [such as servers or kitchen staff]. It’s moderate-income earners like teachers, bank tellers, paramedics, seniors who have lived here forever who are downsizing and have to move out of the area [and] people who want to come home who can’t find anything.”

One such resident is Amy Riska, a Bigfork native who moved back to the area three years ago. Riska shares a four-bedroom apartment with three roommates and is actively seeking a fourth, even as she and the rest of her household work full time at self-described “grown-up jobs.”

They pay $1,800 a month, plus utilities, for the house, which Riska said is hardly new or modern but is nonetheless “cute and fine.”

She works as a salesperson, making what she called “a decent wage, plus commission.” Nonetheless, she said she still lives paycheck to paycheck because of her high rental expenses.

But she maintains, “I was fortunate to find that house,” even though she had to sell all of her furniture in order to move out of the two-bedroom, $1,200-a-month rental where she lived previously.

In her experience, there are essentially no options for people in Bigfork to live on their own without paying well over $1,000 in monthly rent. “It really sucks being a 42-year-old woman and having to have roommates,” she said candidly.

Another option for people who want to live in Bigfork on a modest salary is a mobile home. Caitlin McDonald is the homeowner liaison at Marina Cay Resort, where she works to fill lakeshore rental properties with multiple rooms and access to a hot tub, restaurant and tiki bar and other amenities. At the end of the day, she retires to a pre-owned mobile home she shares with her boyfriend in Papa’s Market trailer park.

“That was the cheapest thing to do,” she explained. “It’s so much cheaper than renting.”

When she first came to Bigfork a year and a half ago, she moved into the first rental property she could find, a 600-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment she rented for $1,000 a month. The property owners decided to convert her apartment into an Airbnb, so with no notice McDonald said she was “kicked out.”

She and her boyfriend bought the mobile home for $8,000 in cash, and they now pay $200 every month for electricity and their lot in the trailer park. “It’s nice to own your own property instead of rent,” she said. Plus, like Riska, she said “I don’t really want to live with somebody I don’t know.”

Despite the housing difficulties, McDonald said she hopes to stay in Bigfork long-term.

McDonald’s mobile home is a step up for Renee Elsen, who lived in a tent on her parents’ Bigfork property before she was able to find an apartment in her budget that could also accommodate her two dogs.

“I needed to kind of make money first,” before she could put down a deposit on a hard-to-find pet-friendly apartment, Elsen said.

This was four years ago, when Elsen started in the kitchen at Flathead Lake Brewing Co. Now, she manages the front of house and rents a two-level apartment with a roommate in a four-plex.

And a tent was far from a sustainable long-term solution. “People really struggle here, especially in the winter in Bigfork,” Elsen pointed out.

“This is a gorgeous place. You know people in their 20s and 30s would love to live here,” she said, speaking from the personal experience of moving to Bigfork at age 24. But for many of these Bigfork hopefuls, finding housing is all about who you know. ?

For many, commuting is the only way they’re able to work in Bigfork.

Lisa Cloutier, who owns and manages The Raven restaurant, Whistling Andy Distillery, the Islander Inn and the Montana Bonfire restaurant, said the majority of her employees live in Columbia Falls or Polson.

“We deal with this all the time,” Cloutier said. She used to be able to rent out employee housing for six months out of the year. Now, she said, almost all of her employees work a second job in the busy summer season. About half of her staff move out of Bigfork during that time, even though she said her businesses tend to pay an “abnormally high wage” ranging from around $10 to $17 per hour, depending on the position, compared to other area businesses.

“We’re needing more and more staff with more and more tourists,” she said, but the trend is increasingly going in the other direction as staff members leave town and eventually find jobs closer to home.

“It becomes a cost-benefit analysis,” Ockert explained. “Do I continue to work in Bigfork or do I find work in Kalispell?”

“It has an impact on our businesses, trying to keep staff going year-round,” Brown added. With staffing already tight in Bigfork, the lack of affordable housing continues to exacerbate the shortage of service industry workers and threatens local tourism.

According to the survey discussed at the Town Hall meeting, at least 100 employees said they would move to Bigfork if they had the opportunity to live there.

Despite the demonstrated need, affordable housing has been a touchy issue for some Bigfork residents. Some were reluctant to discuss an alleged “lack of affordable housing” in the area, and some said the heart of the issue lies in other factors — such as a lack of well-paying jobs, the high average age in Bigfork or the proximity to Flathead Lake — rather than the housing market alone.

As of Jan.1, there were 10 listings on Craigslist for Bigfork rentals asking $800 per month or less. Most were shared units and the rest of the listings on the site were priced at a few hundred dollars more.

Ockert is part of a new coalition known as the Bigfork Affordable Housing Committee, a group under the Bigfork Chamber of Commerce umbrella that is looking to bring more affordable housing options to the town, although the plans are currently very tentative.

“We’re exploring other options for affordable housing rentals,” said Ockert, who has spoken to potential partners such Greenway Capital, the developer behind The Highline Apartments in Columbia Falls. In August 2019, Greenway began renting out “workforce housing” units starting at $695 for a studio apartment.

The coalition is currently looking for someone to donate land to serve as the site for an affordable apartment complex in Bigfork, since the cost of land is so high.

Ockert, a fourth-generation Montanan, believes, “If you were born here you should be able to live here.”

Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at or 758-4459.

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