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Summit to tackle housing divide

Sun., May 20, 2007

More than 150 people are expected to gather in Sandpoint on Thursday for North Idaho’s first summit on affordable housing, confronting one of the most pressing issues in resort towns where many workers are unable to buy homes.

“Mostly what we hope to get is guidance,” said Sandpoint Mayor Ray Miller, who like other government officials knows there is no easy solution.

It likely will take a combination of solutions – everything from offering developers incentives to build homes that the average worker can afford, to changing land-use rules and allowing greater density and taller buildings in urban areas.

A primary focus of this week’s summit at Schweitzer Mountain Resort is how employers can help provide affordable housing for employees, said Craig Nolte, a regional manager with the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s Seattle branch.

Nolte’s role is to put together a panel of experts and act as an independent facilitator so people of all viewpoints can brainstorm solutions that will work for the community.

Resort towns like Sandpoint and Coeur d’Alene often have shortages of key workers such as firefighters, police, nurses and teachers, he said.

“Sandpoint and Coeur d’Alene are booming, but there are stresses that could keep them from continuing, like affordable housing,” Nolte said.

It’s a dilemma for communities across the West as more people move in and pay higher prices for land.

Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint want to avoid a Sun Valley-type housing problem, in which service workers must commute long distances because they can’t afford to live in town where they work.

Coeur d’Alene, Post Falls and Kootenai County will send representatives to the summit in hopes of gathering ideas on providing affordable homes.

“We are going to take advantage of every opportunity to learn more about solutions to make sure everyone can own a home near where they work,” Coeur d’Alene Mayor Sandi Bloem said.

That an affordable housing problem exists in the area was confirmed this spring in the findings of studies conducted both for Bonner County and Coeur d’Alene by BBC Research & Consulting of Denver. The studies found that not enough homes are on the market for households earning less than $50,000 a year.

“We always had a lot of anecdotal information, but this gave us substance,” said Miller, Sandpoint’s mayor.

In Coeur d’Alene, about half the city’s population has difficulty finding an affordable home – about $130,000, the study found. In Bonner County, only 15 percent of the homes on the market in 2005 were priced so families earning incomes between $35,361 and $41,990 could afford them. Yet the study shows that nearly half of Bonner County’s full-time residents earn less than $35,000 a year and are characterized as low-income.

The studies also provided recommendations for how to fix the problem, and many of those ideas will be discussed at the summit.

The gathering this week grew out of one of the study’s recommendations that Bonner County establish an employer-assisted housing coalition. The new coalition is sponsoring the summit.

Charlie Rens, president of the North Idaho Building Contractors Association, won’t attend the workshop but said he hopes other builders and developers participate. Rens said the industry agrees that affordable homes are needed, but the big question is how to build those houses when land prices, materials, labor and insurance costs keep going up.

Local governments should not put the burden solely on builders and developers, he said. “If the country was having hunger problems, it’s not just the farmers’ job to solve it … just like it’s not the builders’ or developers’ job to solve this.”


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