In search of home

Why the just-released housing report unites a ski instructor from the South, a father from the Midwest and a liftie who lives in a bus
“This is a HUGE problem and far exceeds the impact seen in other resort communities in the mountain west.” — How a recently released affordable housing report describes Big Sky compared to other resort destinations

Greg Blaufuss is worried about his son Spencer, who lives in a 1984 Bluebird International bus near the corner of Gooch Hill Road and Highway 191 in Gallatin Gateway. A few weeks back, Spencer—who is 24 and works at Big Sky Resort—bought a load of green wood and that triggered an unfortunate cascade of events. Spencer couldn’t start a fire in the wood stove inside his bus, so it was cold and soon he got sick. 

That’s around the time his father Greg decided to take matters into his own hands by posting an ad on Craigslist pleading for a better, safer and more affordable place for Spencer to live. 

The posting was only up for 18 hours because Greg—who lives in Minnesota—said he had second thoughts about trying to micromanage his son’s life.

The Lone Peak Lookout spotted the heartfelt Craigslist post and contacted Greg, who said his search for better accommodations was a secret—that Spencer didn’t know about it. Later, Greg confessed to placing the Craigslist ad. The search continues, only now father and son—and mom, too—are officially teaming up to tackle the problem together. It’s a challenge Big Sky locals grapple with day to day and it’s described in detail throughout the recently released “Community Housing Assessment and Needs” report. 

Consultant Wendy Sullivan wrote the 98-page deep-dive and was scheduled to host a community Q&A session on Feb. 28 in Big Sky. In a recent email, Sullivan said, “Kick-off for the Housing Action plan to begin March 1. Working with community stakeholders to put the data from the housing needs analysis into action and help Big Sky figure out how to produce more housing for locals!”

The report breaks down community input from more than 1,000 survey respondents, who like the father and son contacted by the Lookout, are largely disappointed in how difficult it is to make a home in Big Sky.

In the summary, Sullivan gets right to the heart of the matter, as she states plainly: “Job Growth Far Exceeds the Provision of Housing for Locals.”

Sullivan, who prepared the report with fellow consultants Christine Walker and Willa Williford, goes on: 

•    Big Sky added 1,200 jobs over the past 5 years—a huge 42 percent increase. 

•    About 510 housing units were needed for employees filling new jobs. 

•    A total of 577 housing units were built during this period.

Sullivan found the volume of housing built met new employee housing needs, but, “The problem is the price. Over 66 percent of units built—380 total—were priced over $1 million; zero rentals priced below $1,200 per month were developed—excluding dorm rooms. New development is not meeting the needs of the local workforce—it is leaving them behind.”

Other aggravating factors at play in Big Sky are the loss of rental properties, which has displaced many because owners are “selling their rental or converting it to a short-term vacation rental. Many households have had to move multiple times. This is a HUGE problem and far exceeds the impact seen in other resort communities in the mountain west.”

Locals buying property represents about 15 percent of total sales, the report concludes based on input from Big Sky realtors. 

“The inventory of homes affordable for residents has been declining and second homeowners and investment buyers are competing for the same product,” continued the report. “The majority of locals can afford homes up to $300,000 and only have a choice of a few condominium projects at this price—many of them studios and one-bedrooms. Finding units that are suitable for families and that provide sufficient storage and/or garages is hard.”

In fact, finding suitable accommodations for a single 38-year-old ski instructor isn’t so easy as well. Just ask Beau Blessing, whose Craigslist ad reads: “Hey Big Sky fam! I’m a third-year adult ski instructor looking for a condo, room or living situation in Big Sky until the end of April. The Bozeman commute has finally caught up with me. $700-1500+/month depending on setup. Open minded, responsible, tidy. All ideas or suggestions welcome! Thanks.”

After a recent shift at Big Sky Resort, Blessing explained his living situation in detail. He commutes to and from the Michael Grove area of Bozeman, where he shares a three-bedroom condo with two roommates and pays $550 a month. 

Blessing, who’s from Florida and holds a master’s degree in Information Systems and Operations Management, knows how to crunch numbers using Excel spreadsheets. Over the last few years, he’s looked into buying a place in Big Sky, but never felt like he could find a good deal. 

“I’m pretty nerdy with Excel,” said Blessing, who applied a “multi-variant regression analysis” to figure out what he should be paying per square foot for a place in Big Sky. The numbers never added up in ways that motivated Blessing to pull the trigger on a place. Besides, he likes to travel during the off-season, so unlike school teachers, sheriff’s deputies, fire fighters and other year-round professionals, Blessing lives a bit loose in the saddle. His search for local digs continues.

Meanwhile, he and others who day dream about buying a place in Big Sky should look at the “Ownership Market Conditions” section of the recently released housing report. The results leave no doubt Big Sky is an exclusive market. 

A fuller picture is detailed in the accompanying box (below), but here’s a key takeaway from the report: “An income of over $250,000 (or 3.6 times more than the median household income; 7.9 times the average wage) is needed to afford the median priced single-family/townhome sold in Big Sky in 2017.”

Add to this the fact that, “Inventories are near record lows. Listings in the summer of 2017 (191 homes) were 23 percent below homes for sale in the summer of 2013 (249 homes). Demand remains high, however, resulting in quickly rising home sale prices.”

So as the Big Sky Community Housing Trust develops its action plan, the market continues to blast off. 

Brian Guyer, with HRDC and the housing trust, wrote in a recent email, “Wendy Sullivan will… work to formulate a long-term housing plan for the community. Wendy will hold four sessions with the working group. This is similar to the efforts she led in Whitefish to help them create a long-term housing plan.”

Spencer—the bus-dwelling, lift-operating, terrain-park-maintaining son of a worried papa—said his long-term housing plan goes something like this: “The goal has always been to save up and buy land. I’m always in the process of it. My mother and my father and me. They can help me get the loan and I can cover the mortgage from there.”

As for the bus, the aim is, “To one day park it on my own claim and slowly build a cabin.”

Spencer recently looked at some acreage in the Gallatin Canyon. He’s not sure it’s the right fit, so his search continues while dad Greg can’t help but worry from time to time.

“Yeah, he likes to worry,” said Spencer. “My family, they’ve been supportive of me, but they don’t understand the reasoning of why I just don’t get an apartment.”

So you want to buy a home in Big Sky?

Here are a few factors to consider, each pulled from the “Ownership Market Conditions” section of the recently released housing report.

Between 2013 and 2017, average home sales prices increased to $386 per square foot for single-family homes and $310 per square foot for condominiums/townhomes. 

    •    Single-family homes increased about 6 percent per year on average per square foot. The average sale price in 2017 rose to over $1.2 million. The high-end single-family home market is led by sales in the Mountain area. 

    •    Condominium/townhome prices per square foot rose an average of 10 percent per year. The average sale price was just over $520,000 in 2017. 

    •     Realtors noted that many neighborhoods are now priced above where they were pre-recession in 2007. Both the single-family and condominium/townhome markets have come back strong. Homes priced under $400,000 have appreciated faster than higher priced homes. 


Playing catch up and keep up

The Big Sky Community Housing Assessment and Needs report defines a couple of key terms in the discussion about developing more affordable housing in Big Sky.

Catch up needs: The number of housing units needed to catch up to meet the current shortfall in housing available for the workforce. 

Keep up needs: Keep-up refers to the number of housing units needed to keep up with job growth and the housing units needed to house employees filling jobs over the next  five years. 

The report goes on to detail how in Big Sky, “Between 560 and 655 housing units are needed over the next five years to address current housing shortages (‘catch-up’ needs) for the workforce and keep up with future job growth. This averages between 95 and 110 units per year. This is equivalent to the amount of residential development that has happened over the past five years with one important exception: over 55 percent need to be priced below market to meet the needs of residents.” 

It continues, “Ownership and rental housing for the local workforce is needed in Big Sky. About 40 percent of new units should be for ownership and 60 percent for rent, which will accommodate in-commuters wanting to move to Big Sky and the needs of employees filling new jobs. The precise ratio, however, is also dependent upon the desired direction and housing policy of Big Sky, which will be a decision to make during the Action Plan process,” which starts now. 



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