Wages in Blaine County fell below the rest of Idaho for the first time in recent memory during 2018, as the buying power of residents and the cost of housing continue to trend in opposite directions, according to federal statistics aggregated by the Blaine County Housing Authority.

Last year, the inflation-adjusted mean (average) wage for employees in Blaine County fell to its lowest point since 2005, per figures compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, the statewide figure leapt ahead, surpassing local pay by almost $1,000—$41,678 versus $40,742.

Estimated area median (mid-point) income figures for 2019 released by the Department of Housing and Urban Development are buoyed by the addition of non-wage earnings, and remain higher than the state at large: $76,100 in Blaine County compared to $67,200. But, adjusting for inflation using the Western Region Consumer Price Index, that number is falling sharply—and the gap with the rest of the state is shrinking. Ten years ago, Blaine County’s estimated AMI stood at $90,500 in 2019 dollars; Idaho as a whole was $25,000 less, at $65,500.

That’s a decline of almost 16 percent in Blaine County during the past decade.

Housing prices, though, are charging ahead. Valleywide, the median two-bedroom unit rented for $1,700 a month in April, based on advertised rents placed in the Idaho Mountain Express compiled by the BCHA. Based on HUD guidelines, a family would need to make $68,000 to afford something at that price. In 2013, when the BCHA began recording classified data, the median two-bedroom unit cost roughly $925, adjusted for inflation—about 45 percent less.

The combination of lower earnings and higher prices could exacerbate a dire situation, as workers seek better pay in other, cheaper parts of the state, according to BCHA Executive Director Nathan Harvill. If the trend carries on, higher pay—that magnet drawing workers from lower-rent areas outside the county—would lose its pull.

“If the status quo continues, we’ll see more local businesses either closing entirely or severely restricting their hours of operation because they do not have the workforce to perform the entry-level jobs that are critical to operations,” Harvill said. “Certainly, many will determine that the commute is not worth their time and energy. This applies to service workers, public safety officials and educators. With a shortage of workforce would come a change in the lifestyle to which many in Blaine County have become accustomed.”

Harvill traces declining earnings, in part, to a rising reliance on low-paying leisure and hospitality jobs.

Through two quarters of fiscal 2018, the most recent data available through the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 26.6 percent of all people employed in Blaine County worked in the leisure and hospital sector, some 5 percentage points higher than in 2009. Those people earned an average wage of $23,270—$900 less than a decade prior, after adjusting for inflation.

“A good number of management and middle-management jobs were taken from the area and moved to Salt Lake or other places,” Harvill said, adding that those jobs were replaced by positions in leisure and hospitality.

It isn’t clear what that means for the county going forward. Housing prices are high nationwide, but Blaine County’s resort economy creates unique conditions, Harvill said. Eventually, less money in local pockets could pull down asking prices for rent and property.

Or not.

“The difference we experience up here is that there is a lack of buildable land, there are an abundance of empty houses, there are finite resources to support housing in many areas, and there are not an insignificant and vocal number of people who simply don’t want it here,” Harvill said. “There are also a great number of people who understand the value and importance of having broad local housing options in the community, and many are beginning to raise their voices.

“Breaking the power structure that tilts housing away from the local community and replacing it with one that levels the playing field for everyone would be big step forward in solving the housing shortage.”

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