Wendy Sullivan, holder of an unofficial degree in ski town studies. One of her favorite expert tips: “Some of the best research is done on the mountain and the best sources of information are the bartenders. They are awesome. They know everything.”

Who is Wendy Sullivan?

Who is Wendy Sullivan? And how can she help bring more affordable housing to Big Sky?

Wendy Sullivan remembers when Ketchum, Idaho first started to wrestle publicly with its affordable housing issues. It was around 2000 and Sullivan was working as a planner for Blaine County in nearby Hailey. Just up the road in the ski town servicing Sun Valley resort, the city council approved funding for an affordable home ownership project. 

The community’s reaction? “Rebellion,” recalls Sullivan, an affordable housing consultant now working with the Big Sky Community Housing Trust. “The next day a petition came forward to get the city council kicked off for approving this project. And it was all NIMBY.”

Sullivan recalls the episode as being particularly discouraging because one of the first people on the list for a shot at owning her own home was a “long-time, year-round local with a great business in the community.”

While Ketchum continued to fight it out over affordable housing, the town of Hailey “jumped onboard,” says Sullivan. “They embraced it. And from there, they’ve continued to build housing for the workforce. That community is thriving. They have a bunch of families there and all their business storefronts are full.”

It’s hard to make a direct comparison between Bozeman and Big Sky, but it appears Bozeman is a few steps ahead of its resort town neighbor when it comes to grappling with affordable housing. 

During the first week of January, three candidates interviewed to become Bozeman’s first affordable housing director to help track multiple projects currently in development. The city of Bozeman estimates roughly half of Bozeman renters dedicate more than a third of their take-home pay to housing. 

Meanwhile, Big Sky continues to look for ways to move beyond the snags hit by the Powder Light and Bough Subdivision projects, which promised more affordable housing, but bogged down in the county planning process in 2017. 

Sullivan’s work aims to get things moving again and it looks like she’s off to a promising start. The Big Sky Community Housing Trust’s survey recently wrapped up and Sullivan is pleased with the response.

“Over 1,100 responses, which is fantastic!” Sullivan wrote recently in an email from her home in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. “A great mix of year-round Big Sky residents/employees, in-commuting employees and seasonal job holders. We are still checking/compiling the data so no results available yet. We received great, insightful and constructive comments through the survey—the public participation and input is fantastic.”

Looking ahead, Sullivan anticipates delivering a “Draft Housing Needs Assessment” report the first week of February, followed by a public presentation in Big Sky at the end of February. 

“Then we kick into the Action Plan phase, which will occur through May (wrap up first week of June),” wrote Sullivan, who is working to “figure out the ‘story’ of housing and needs in the community… which will be orated in the Needs Assessment.”

Sullivan holds a master’s degree in regional planning and a law degree from the University of Colorado. But she’s also gathered what amounts to an informal master’s in ski town studies. After her stint working near Idaho’s iconic ski town, she moved on to help tackle housing issues in Whitefish, Mammoth Lakes, Calif., Jackson, Wyo. and Breckenridge, Colo. 

During a visit to Big Sky in early November 2017, Sullivan remarked, “It felt like I went to a Colorado resort in the 1990s” given all the development slated for Big Sky in the coming years. 

“In general, what is very unique about Big Sky, is that you guys are still growing as a resort area,” said Sullivan. “You’re very new as a resort community. Most of these other towns are pretty established. There are not a lot of resorts in that growth phase. They’re in the mature phase.”

As Colorado resorts grew toward maturity, said Sullivan, they wrestled with both a lack of affordable housing and the word affordable itself. 

“It tends to have that negative connotation,” said Sullivan. “You know, crime. But affordable doesn’t mean you’re not working and you don’t have any income.”

In Breckenridge, housing advocates started avoiding the word altogether and switched to terms like employee or workforce housing. A report Sullivan helped put together said, “The town saw a need to expand housing options for persons making their living locally. This stemmed in part from concerns that further loss of local residents would eventually erode the character and spirit of the town.”

The decision for Breckenridge to develop more workforce housing was also driven by, “The economic benefits of a larger year-round resident base to support businesses and decrease reliance on the fluctuating tourism market.”

“How can you sustain your economy if your workers can’t live anywhere?” asked Sullivan. “A lot of resorts in Colorado were in that place. But now for the most part, they have a lot more even winter and summer seasons. And what that’s done in those areas is it’s allowed more people to live up there year-round. It creates a more vibrant community. We want them to be in a community they really want to be in. And that’s why we do this work.”

Increasing the number of workforce housing units helped Breckenridge by boosting the number of households with children and increasing the rate of homeownership in town. 

“When you’re talking about affordable housing in a resort community, it’s not low-income housing,” said Sullivan. “It’s housing for people earning up to $100,000 a year. That’s something that’s important to recognize. They are not low-income.”

Sullivan points down Interstate 70 from Breckenridge to Vail, where a friend of hers was able to purchase a home thanks to a workforce housing initiative. She bought a deed restricted property, which allows owners to build up equity but not escalate the entry level price for workforce homes. This really paid off when Sullivan’s friend followed her career to the big city. 

“It’s neat. If she hadn’t been able to build up equity, then she would not have had anything to get her into a house in Denver,” said Sullivan. 

This is one of the downstream benefits of workforce housing, said Sullivan. But first, communities like Big Sky need to find ways to get affordable developments to pencil out for developers. 

“Some communities will offer a density bonus—25 percent more density if a certain number of units are ‘affordable.’ They can also reduce parking requirements,” said Sullivan, adding workforce housing has become such a big priority in resort communities, these projects are moved to the front of the line at the local planning office because “time is money” and developments become more affordable if they don’t bog down in the approval process. “That’s another form of incentive you can use, which is called ‘fast-tracking.’”

“They might work out agreements with water and sewer to waive fees,” continued Sullivan, noting that Big Sky being unincorporated presents challenges because it’s harder to prioritize resources and incentives for affordable housing, as she’s seen in ski towns with a city council. “The community will find the money to fill in the gaps. Most of the Colorado resort communities—as well as Jackson, Wyo. and the California communities—have all looked at their codes to incentivize affordable housing. And the project we just finished in Whitefish, they’re looking at incentives as well—and potentially mandates. They might look to do what Bozeman is doing, which is to make it mandatory. All of these areas offer examples for Big Sky to look at as they develop a more effective resident and workforce housing program.”

More Information

Lone Peak Lookout

Cori Koenig, editor: editor@lonepeaklookout.com
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