Friday, October 7, 2011

Assessing the cost of living

The push for affordable housing in the Wood River Valley

Express Staff Writer

Tim and Linda Parsons enjoy their deck at Northwood Place apartments with their 13-month-old daughter, Kirana. Parsons said he chose the affordable housing complex over cheaper apartments in the area because utilities in older, reasonably priced apartments could have added hundreds of dollars to his monthly expenses. Photo by Willy Cook

Part 1 of a three-part series on the past, present and future of community and workforce housing in the Wood River Valley.

Tim Parsons' needs were simple: an apartment he could afford and utilities that would not break the bank. The stakes got higher a little over a year ago, when Parsons, a lift operator and golf course maintainer for Sun Valley Co., and his wife, Linda, had a baby girl.

"I wanted to keep my daughter warm," he said.

At the time, he was living in a Bigwood condo on Saddle Road in Ketchum, where the low rent was far outstripped by a $200 monthly winter power bill. Parsons said that despite his efforts—and enormous heating bill—he could not keep the back bedroom warm.

"I couldn't keep the bedroom above 62 degrees," he said. "I thought, yeah, my daughter can't live here."

Eventually, the Parsons family was able to move into a two-bedroom apartment in Northwood Place, the Ketchum Community Development Corporation's affordable housing development on Saddle Road near the Wood River YMCA.

A standard two-bedroom unit costs $800 per month, about the same or more than many market-rate apartments in Ketchum.

Parsons said the building's more efficient insulation and appliances were the main draw for him. He'd previously rejected a cheaper two-bedroom apartment for rent in downtown Ketchum, a place where the landlord estimated a winter power bill would run approximately $120 a month if Parsons used the wood fireplace and kept the thermostat low.

This basic need—a warm, affordable place to live for the valley's year-round residents—is the driving force behind at least three valley organizations and a myriad of local ordinances.

What's old is new again

As early as 1990, Blaine County elected officials were concerned about the lack of affordable housing in the Wood River Valley. The Blaine County Comprehensive Plan includes a housing assessment done by a Colorado-based consulting firm called Rosall, Remmen and Cares.

The summary of the study reads as though it was written today: The valley needs a mix of housing types; too many people are paying more than 30 percent of their monthly income in housing costs; and developers should be required or encouraged to set aside a percentage of newly developed homes for workforce housing.

Idaho Mountain Express classifieds from October 1990 show an average two-bedroom apartment in Ketchum rented for roughly $920 ($1,600 in 2011 dollars). As a result, the county plan states, more and more people were working in the Wood River Valley but commuting from Camas, Lincoln and Twin Falls counties.

The extensive commute was causing traffic problems and economic impacts to employers who wanted to hire locally but who were forced to raise wages so their workers could afford to live nearby.

"Housing for people who make up the workforce is being slowly replaced by housing for people who only need the goods and services supplied by the workforce," the plan reads.

In 2001, the average two-bedroom rent had soared to $1,630, equivalent to $2,085 when adjusted for inflation. As the average Blaine County citizen was earning $31,346 in 2000, a one-bedroom ($910 on average, unadjusted) amounts to 35 percent of that gross pay—and an even bigger chunk of the worker's take-home check.

The Ketchum Comprehensive Plan identifies the impacts of high housing costs on the city itself, saying: "the gradual loss of Ketchum's affordable housing stock [is] forcing the local work force to relocate down valley."

The average rent for a two-bedroom in Hailey when the plan was approved in 2006 was $930, a significant savings over $1,230 for a two-bedroom in Ketchum at the time. That gap is still present today, with the average two-bedroom in Hailey running $695 to Ketchum's $947.


Stepping up

The city of Ketchum recognized this gap in 2006, when it formed the Ketchum Community Development Corporation in an attempt to keep young, year-round residents living in the city.

Jon Duval, current executive director of the Ketchum CDC, said losing workers to the south valley was harming the city's economic development. People were working in Ketchum and driving home to Hailey to live, buy groceries and generally spend money.

"All those paychecks were going somewhere else," Duval said. "If you can get people to live where they work, all the money goes back to the community."

Dale Bates, board member of the Ketchum CDC, said there was low-income housing available in Ketchum at the time. However, as is still true today, most of the so-called "affordable housing" was in older buildings with high utilities—such as Parson's Bigwood condo.

The dearth of affordable, good-quality housing was driving young professionals out of town, Bates said.

"They couldn't afford anything else and they didn't want to live in old ski-bum housing," he said. "When I moved here 33 years ago, mostly all of West Ketchum was affordable housing."

Now, he said, most affordable housing has been replaced by high-end condos.

The ARCH Community Housing Trust founder, Rebekah Helzel, noticed the problem as well. ARCH Executive Director Michelle Griffith said the organization was founded for the purpose of raising awareness of the importance of affordable housing in a resort community.

"[Rebekah] was a local citizen who said the feature of our struggling economy was housing prices," she said. "When the economy was booming and we were fighting every other community to hire firefighters or teachers, we didn't want to have to take the third person on the list because the first two couldn't afford a house."

One battle was fighting the stigma, Griffith said, a holdover from the urban regions many residents had come from.

"People think low-income housing projects are where drug dealers live, in the ghetto," she said. "But we have architects, firefighters and teachers in affordable housing."

The organization's current role is developing affordable housing, building complexes and renovating homes while organizing leases on the land or placing it in trust in an effort to keep prices down. The difference between ARCH and the Ketchum CDC is that ARCH's projects stretch from a renovated home in West Ketchum to a senior housing complex in Hailey.

"We're not trying to provide housing all in Ketchum or all in Hailey," Griffith said, citing the different cultures valley-wide. "There are reasons someone wants to live in one community or another."

Filling those homes is another matter. The Blaine County Housing Authority is in charge of matching potential owners or renters with reasonably priced housing, as well as managing the titles on 93 units.

"ARCH's main thrust is in production," said Dave Patrie, executive administrator of the authority. "The long-term planning and preservation of that supply is the BCHA's responsibility."

New normal

But how necessary is that planning and development in an economy in which housing prices are crashing? Rents have dropped steadily in the entire valley since 2001 if inflation is taken into account: Adjusted average rents for a Ketchum two-bedroom fell from $2,085 in 2001 to the current rate of $947.

But per-capita Blaine County income has fallen from an adjusted $41,238 in 2000 to $31,626 in 2010, and second-home owners are still driving the real estate market. Foreclosures have thrown a wrench in the works as well, leaving the current state of affordable housing in the valley in flux.

Next week: The current state of affordable housing.

Katherine Wutz:

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