Ask anyone on the street, “What is the biggest problem facing Blaine County?” Locals will say a lack of affordable housing. At the Blaine County Housing Authority, we currently have over 250 local households on our waiting list with few housing options to offer. Like many other communities, Blaine County has a low housing inventory, increased building costs, an abundance of vacant homes and many short-term rentals.
The 2021 U.S. Housing and Urban Development data shows a yearly decrease in area median income for a family of four to $75,000. This size family can afford $1,875 a month for housing and utilities. Over the past decade, median income and housing costs have trended in opposite directions. While incomes have fallen about 16%, housing prices have increased about 40%.
Overregulation and consistent rejection of the good in favor of the unseen perfect have both contributed to the housing crisis before us.
A housing stock that is unattainable to the local workforce is a dire emergency and is unsustainable for any community. A look in the newspaper and on Facebook demonstrates that we have too few rentals, let alone rentals that are affordable. We have a historic peak in real estate prices and sales. This is compounded by the fact that many of the households on our waiting list work in the leisure/hospitality industry, earning well under the area median income. Additionally, many long-term residents are being displaced by unconscionable rent increases and sales of their rental units. Where will this displaced workforce go? Rising wages in Twin Falls and other regional employment centers means that Blaine County can no longer count on the “commuter workforce” to provide for basic needs in our community.
So, what should we do as a community? If we value community, it is imperative that we treat housing like the five-alarm fire that it is and get to solving this most pressing and human issue—now. We must elevate workforce and affordable housing to a level as important as public safety, education and public health. Without enough housing, our employers cannot maintain or grow their businesses. Bluebird Village can be the beginning of addressing this disparity. We have heard that many people in our community are as concerned as we are about our housing crisis. Government leaders, nonprofit executives, large employers and many of our friends and neighbors who have resources to invest are alarmed about our lack of affordable housing.
The BCHA has a small foundation offering Housing Gap grants, paying $500 to landlords or mortgage companies on behalf of households needing assistance. It may seem like a drop in the bucket, but even a small amount of help is useful. While we’re grateful to the individuals and organizations who have donated, this crisis is not going away, so let’s give those who are serious about making a difference the means to put their capital to work by creating a Housing Investment Fund. We should buy land and build safe, decent, affordable housing for our workers and our young families. We can preserve housing by buying existing housing stock.
We see so much building in Ketchum and Hailey that is out of reach for our community, so let’s open the door to housing for our local workforce and aim to acquire and build 250 units in two years. If this doesn’t seem like enough, let’s do more. Our workers and families deserve nothing less. If we aim for Mars, maybe we can make it to the Moon. We must adjust our thinking about housing from a commodity of luxury to a resource needed for community survival.
Nathan Harvill is executive director of the Blaine County Housing Authority.