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In one Montana resort community, a new affordable housing program pays property owners to rent to locals

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The unincorporated town of Big Sky, Montana, has just 3,000 full-time residents but can host 10,000 visitors at a time during the busy season. There is limited space in the mountainous region to build workforce housing.

In the small resort community of Big Sky, Montana, 78 percent of workers commute from outside the area, according to U.S. Census Data. For KHOL and Rocky Mountain Community Radio, Will Walkey reports on a new program that’s trying to reverse that trend by paying property owners to rent to locals.

Shannon Sears has lived in Big Sky for six years, and she’s already moved five times. The 33-year-old works for a title and escrow company, and she also sits on the local chamber of commerce. But ever since she moved to Montana from Texas, finding housing has been difficult

“At an age I thought was something I had already gotten past, I had to move in with multiple roommates just to be able to get a roof over my head,” Sears said. “The housing shortage when I first got here was shocking to me.”

Like in so many other Mountain West resort towns, the real estate market in Big Sky has skyrocketed during the pandemic. The median price of a single-family home is up more than 30% in the past year, and rents rose 65%, according to recent market reports.

Sears lost her local housing earlier this year, so she found herself commuting over an hour each way, every day. And she was far from alone: 78% of Big Sky workers commute from outside the area, according to 2018 American Community Survey estimates.

“The canyon has snow and ice and, you know, it’s dark in the winter. So, to pass the time, you listen to podcasts, you wake up with your coffee and you think about your day on your way home to decompress. So, it really wasn’t too bad, except it pulls me away from my community,” she said. “And that was my biggest complaint with the commute, is that I live here. I work here. I want to be a part of this community.”

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2018 American Community Survey
Of the 2,885 workers in Big Sky, 2,281 of them commute from outside the area, often from over 40 miles away, according to the most recent American Community Survey estimates.

When asked in a 2018 local housing survey, 39% of Big Sky commuters said they want to live where they work. And often, vacation property owners want to provide that service, but they don’t know how. Laura Seyfang is executive director of the Big Sky Community Housing Trust, and she owned a vacation rental herself for several years.

“I had no idea how to rent to a local because I didn’t know any local people,” she said. “I only came out and visited two weeks a year, you know. So, I started from that perspective when we came up with this program and said, ‘What are the things that get in the way of someone who owns a property out here from figuring out how to rent to a local?’”

Platforms like Airbnb make it so easy for property owners to make money off their investment, so Seyfang set out to create a similar program for local renters.

“We help them find good renters. We help them figure out what to price their unit for. And we provide a lot of [what we call] a la carte property management services, so that if a person just needs a little bit of help with their unit, we can give them that,” Seyfang said.

In addition, vacation owners can enter into a property-sharing program that allows them to stay in someone else’s vacation home whenever they want to, so that they can still enjoy Big Sky while their property is occupied. Inspired by an initiative in Lake Tahoe, Seyfang started Rent Local in early 2020, when she hoped just the management services and appealing to people’s morals would be enough. But by August 2021, she had only gotten 14 takers.

“For a lot of people, we just kept hearing the answers that they make too much money on the short-term rental market,” Seyfang said. “You know, everybody has a motivation to make sure they can pay their bills. So, that’s when we thought, ‘Well, we need to come up with a way to sweeten the pot.’”

That’s why starting in August, Seyfang got several grants from local community foundations to help incentivize rental owners. Now, if you lease to a local worker for six months, the minimum to qualify for the program, the housing trust will give you $1,500. For a two-year commitment, it’s $14,500.

“The idea is just to let our workers have a sense of security that they’re not going to lose their housing, which happens all the time here,” Seyfang said

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Courtesy of Shannon Sears
Now that she lives locally in Big Sky, Shannon Sears says she can say “yes” to more things again.

Since the incentive program started in the last couple of months, seven new property owners have already signed up. Sears, the real estate worker, matched with one of those landlords and moved into her own condo on Sept. 1 with her cat.

“Lucky doesn’t even cover how I actually feel,” Sears said. “I am so thankful to be in a spot. It is close to my office. It’s close to town. I have a four-minute commute at this moment and the condo itself is really nice.”

Sears said she thinks the program has been a good match for the owner of her unit, too, who now doesn’t have to worry about having an empty home or the hassle of Airbnb. Sears is also feeling the benefits from her new home in her work life.

“My business is a relationship-focused business. So, you know, being here in Big Sky, where my customers are, where my clients are, I can’t even tell you how important that is for my colleagues to see me around town as a local,” she said.

Still, the new program’s not perfect. Seyfang admits that it’s been slow to get off the ground and takes a lot of convincing for property owners, and rents still might not be affordable for all workers. People who had already been renting to locals before are also asking how they can get in on the action, or else they might switch to leasing to tourists. And then there’s the risk of grant money running out.

But Seyfang said the Big Sky community has to stay focused on increasing the supply of housing for locals quickly through whatever means necessary.

“This is sort of like a mini deed restriction is what we’re doing. Just we’re buying it a year at a time,” she said“We really all appreciate these beautiful mountain communities we live in, but we have to figure a way to work together to support them and create a place that can be inclusive of all income levels and all the people who we rely on to serve us and to take care of us and to support a healthy community.”

In the meantime, ‘Help Wanted’ signs are up in nearly every business in Big Sky, Seyfang said, and time is of the essence.

This story is part of a collaboration between the Solutions Journalism Network and Rocky Mountain Community Radio highlighting affordable housing solutions across the Mountain West.

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