Candidates for the Blaine County Commission have had sound bites to spare about the county’s affordable-housing shortage, which has dominated discussion during this year’s District 1 race.
On Tuesday, voters will choose between three candidates for the south county seat—Republican Mick Halverson, Democrat Dick Fosbury and independent Debra Hall—and three slightly different ideas on solving the housing crunch.
Whichever candidate replaces sitting Democrat Larry Schoen will take over at a critical time to shape housing policy in the rural county.
The board is still deciding how to implement a new state law opening up a range of property-tax exemptions to incentivize developments, including rental properties. And, it will likely chart a course for the McHanville/South Gateway area south of Ketchum, currently earmarked for deed-restricted, low-income units by the county’s Community Housing-Planned Unit Development overlay.
Through his 12-year tenure, Schoen has supported the overlay and its deed-restricted approach. His replacement may not.
Hall, a real estate agent, and Halverson, a retired business owner who runs rental units in Bellevue, slant further right on the issue. During the campaign, they’ve both advocated for a free-market approach.
“No one controls the market except the buyers,” Hall told the Idaho Mountain Express earlier this month. “It depends on what they’re willing to pay. It’s not the commissioners’ job to take over for the market.”
She prefers to cut fees, shorten the approval process and provide incentives to developers, like property-tax exemptions or subsidizing infrastructure costs. The county, she says, can help private entities find and finance projects, or lease them county-owned land.
Halverson tends to agree. He supports tax relief and reduced building fees for projects that meet affordable thresholds. He also wants to “clean up” existing ordinances, and use text amendments to find “quick, simple solutions” rather than wait for full revisions of the comprehensive plan.
“Anybody should be able to pick up any given ordinance, read it, and immediately know what to do,” he said.
According to Halverson, those ordinances should allow more density, and fewer restrictions on land use. In general, he’s skeptical of government intervention, and that additions to county code can solve the housing problem.
“Do we need more rules and laws?” Halverson asked. “That’s government, and it has a way of self-throttling. We’re attacking the beast, but we’re not getting to the heart.”
“There are a lot of ways to beat this,” he added. “We need trailer courts, rentals, single-family homes, duplexes. Progress is coming to this valley. We need to be willing to change.”
One place to start would be around Bellevue, where the county can aid annexations into the city to increase buildable acreage, Halverson said. Both he and Fosbury, the Democrat, want to work with cities on their areas of city impact to try to get that done, and guide new building toward developed areas.
Fosbury, a retired engineer who sits on the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission, also wants to comb through ordinances to make applications easier.
First, he wants to add a mobile-home zone to the books—currently, the county doesn’t have one—and apply it to existing trailer parks, which have been grandfathered in. (During a candidate forum hosted by the Idaho Mountain Express on Oct. 17, Hall and Halverson supported Fosbury’s suggestion.)
There are issues besides county zoning that prevent mobile-home parks, namely sewer and wastewater requirements enforced by the state Department of Environmental Quality. Earlier this year, the North Fork Trailer Park near Ketchum announced it would close after its owner, Kingsley Murphy, opted not to bring its sewage system up to modern standards.
Fosbury, though, thinks technology can help solve those problems, if the county paves the way. As a former Ketchum city engineer, he knows the town has a mobile-home zone; he’d look to adapt it for county use.
Unlike Hall and Halverson, Fosbury isn’t opposed to deed restrictions for low-income housing, which he says were working in prescribed areas prior to the Great Recession.
“Now, developers are saying it doesn’t pencil out,” he said. “Deed restrictions are one tool. As long as we have numerous solutions, that’s what best serves the public at large.”
One solution, he says, is to engage business and citizens through public-private partnership by creating a tax-deductible affordable-housing foundation, which he has seen in other parts of the country.
“We have a community that will support the preservation of open space,” he said. “I believe there’s a strong enough desire to support this. Parents want to see their kids move back. Employers want to see their jobs filled. With leadership from the right people, we can help with that.”