Laura Seyfang, executive director of Big Sky Housing Trust, presents at the Sept. Building Forum. PHOTO BY JANA BOUNDS

Big Sky Community Housing Trust on confronting the workforce housing crisis

Big Sky Chamber of Commerce Community Building Forum series

When Laura Seyfang, executive director of Big Sky Community Housing Trust (BSCHT) stood before the speakers gathered for the Chamber of Commerce Building Forum there were five and a half rental units available in Big Sky and “112 people on our waitlist desperately looking for places to rent.” She noted that median real estate prices in the area have shot up almost 78% in the last couple of years.

“Certainly our workers’ incomes have not gone up at that rate, so what we have happening here is the amount of available units for people who are actually working here providing service jobs for us – it’s just out of reach,” she said, explaining that there are few units that have sold for less than $305,000.

Seyfang described an uphill battle for the fledgling organization that she said should have been started a decade ago, so that the community would not be playing catch-up with dire workforce housing issues.

There is hope, though. Big Sky Resort Area District funding has been essential. In fact, it has been the only source of funding thus far, but as she looks to other resort communities and how they are confronting the housing crisis, she notices a diversification of the funding structure.

“We can’t just rely on Resort Tax going forward,” she said.

The organization is exploring other funding sources including philanthropic donations with tax benefits, employers, real estate buyers, sellers and agents, developers and federal programs like Low Income Housing Tax Credit.

She noted that major employers are emphasizing workforce housing as a focus in the coming years, but also that they seem driven to assisting seasonal employees by building dormitories and converting hotels. The goal of BSCHT is to create long-term housing opportunities for locals who want to stay.

With that in mind, BSCHT is pushing to build 500 long term housing units in the next five years, which has an estimated price tag of $85 million.

Seyfang outlined the challenges to building affordable housing in Big Sky. Lack of available land for starters. A lack of water and sewer rights – which was eased by the Big Sky Resort Area District 1% for infrastructure deal with Big Sky County Water and Sewer District. That deal paved the way for 500 SFEs to be allocated to affordable housing. Restrictive planning and zoning regulations, which Seyfang helped rewrite this past year. Also, that the sole funding source has been BSRAD but that is not enough for all that has to happen. Big Sky’s unincorporated status has also been a hindrance – it is difficult to secure federal and state funds because “we don’t really exist in their eyes as an actual entity.”

Though maybe late in the game, BSCHT is gaining traction, including the MeadowView ownership opportunity – a community land trust model. Fifty two condominiums that are selling for 30-40% under market rate “because we keep the land, which was purchased with Resort Tax dollars, in the community land trust and really sell people the improvements on the land.” Units are still available and certain qualifications must be met. All 18 phase one condos have been completed and sold. All thirty-four phase two condos are projected to be completed by March. Studios sell for $155,000 and two bedrooms for $320,000.

Also a notable launch for this year is the Long Term Rental Program. It takes years to build new apartments while the community has “an unbelievable number of condos sitting here empty the majority of the year.” A website has been developed to facilitate the rental of units to locals.

“We are providing lots of services to those owners to try to make it an easier system for them to do this and to make them feel really comfortable that they’ve got good renters in their property. A few months in, they have listed and rented eight properties and have 18 workers in units. We are really looking to increase our supply,” she said.

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