Big Sky Housing: Challenge to Fill “The Missing Middle”

Big Sky’s leadership deficit is tied to its housing deficit, which the RiverView development aims to fill


Community powers collaborate to create an achievable path from entry-level employment to middle management, ownership and community leadership. These are the factors that build a life and sustain a family in Big Sky.

“The problem we’ve found ourselves in as a community is that we’ve closed too many entry and exit points on the way,” said Dave O’Connor, executive director of Big Sky Community Housing Trust.

O’Connor has lived in Big Sky since graduating from college three decades ago, and he understands the challenges and merits of building a life in Big Sky.

Restricted deed housing has been available since 2017, when Big Sky’s MeadowView condominiums were built to provide a convenient ownership opportunity for workforce housing. Deed restrictions seek to exclude investors by limiting home equity appreciation to 2% per year, requiring buyers to work and live full-time in Big Sky and ensuring eligible buyers earn less 150% of the region’s median income.

“It won’t be your home for life because of the [deed] restrictions attached to it,” O’Connor said. “But it’s designed to get you started.”

MeadowView provides an affordable living option for the working class and is home to 105 community members.

“If you made a list of everyone who lives there and their employers, it would look like a list of members of a chamber of commerce,” O’Connor said. “He did what he was supposed to do.”

Creating continuity in Big Sky’s workforce

Without deed-restricted housing options, Big Sky workers would need to earn 200% of the region’s median income — which is about $140,000 — in order to afford real estate at Big’s market value. Sky, O’Connor said.

That’s why the Big Sky community needs to fill “the missing middle”, he said.

“Our community lacks middle pricing, our employers lack middle management, our community lacks middle leadership,” O’Connor explained. “It’s a national phenomenon, and it affects Big Sky just as much.”

The Big Sky Community Housing Trust is focused on providing an entry point and upward mobility pathway for residents to live and work in Big Sky. Powder Light is currently under construction to accommodate seasonal employment. The next step in building this pathway is to target low-income full-time labor tenants. That’s why RiverView, the newest workforce housing initiative, is important to the future of Big Sky.

A home for low-income essential workers

In partnership with the Lone Mountain Land Company, BSCHT is supporting the construction of 100 apartments on a long, thin strip of land off Lone Mountain Trail (US Highway 64) across from the water harvesting ponds in the village of Meadow. Lone Mountain Land owns this strip of land and will operate 75 units, and BSCHT will operate the remaining 25 units on the westernmost portion.

Supported by a $6.49 million federal grant, RiverView Apartments will be structured by the federal government under the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program and administered by the Montana State Board of Housing. The only other local LIHTC program is the Big Sky Apartments, built in the 1990s on Moose Ridge Road in the Mountain Village.

To be eligible, renters will need to earn less than 60% of the AMI, which equates to less than $40,000 per year, and work full-time within the resort tax district. Rent is set at 30% of total income.

O’Connor pointed out that teachers in the Big Sky School District, county sheriff’s deputies, child care professionals at the Morningstar Learning Center and some medical professionals fall into that 60% AMI bracket.

“Not just low-income workers,” he said, “but essential workers.”

A not-for-profit, the BSCHT does not have the for-profit capital or leverage to compete with private developers such as the Lone Mountain Land Company. However, in the Resort Tax Amendment, which funds Big Sky’s new water resource recovery facility, 500 family equivalents of water have been dedicated to BSCHT.

“Now we have water to bring,” O’Connor said. “What this arrangement has done is it has taken Housing Trust – in a deficient position by definition – and given us a resource to bring back to the table and allow us to participate as partners.”

He added that Big Sky is unique in that it requires a partnership of so many parties, which shows how the future of accessible housing is a community solution.

A ticking clock

Construction has yet to begin on RiverView as a valid easement continues to restrict the land. Owned since the mid-1990s by the Big Sky Owners Association, the easement ensured construction of the paved bike path to the school district.

“At the end of the day, it’s a kind of real estate negotiation,” said O’Connor, whose BSCHT does not own the land and is not involved in the process of removing the easement. “Coming to an agreement on the value of an asset and then transferring the value of that asset so that we can build. And that’s kind of what we’re going through right now.

If Lone Mountain Land and the Housing Trust are unable to innovate and lay the foundations before the ground freezes, they will be behind the 2023 completion milestones set by the federal LIHTC program.

“We received federal funding in the form of tax credits,” O’Connor said. “And if we don’t use them, we lose them.”

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