Community October 20, 2021

Affordable Housing in the Wood River Valley

An ongoing yet critical issue for Valley residents


“Real estate market prices are through the roof!” “I can’t believe how many ‘COVID immigrants’ have come to town.” “Interest rates are low—what a time to buy.” “Wow, Sun Valley is a great place to work remotely.”

Yet, affordable housing in the Wood River Valley (WRV) continues to percolate as a critical issue for local, longtime Wood River Valley residents. It would be rather naïve to perceive the lack of affordable housing as simply an urban, metropolis issue. The lack of accessible, reasonably priced and available housing opportunities in the WRV has been worsened in the past 12 to 18 months. But, in reality, the WRV affordable housing dynamic has been long in the making.

Starting in 1983, each of the City of Ketchum’s Comprehensive Plans have recognized the need for workforce housing. These policies have included the following:

       1) zoning changes to incentivize developers to create small numbers of workforce housing units.

       2) establishment of funding sources, allowing developers to meet housing requirements through financial contributions (Housing In-Lieu Fund) .

       3) Ketchum Urban Renewal Agency (KURA), which has provided funding for infrastructure prioritizing workforce housing projects.

In 2006, local leaders created the Ketchum Community Development Corporation (KCDC – 501c3 entity), with the sole mission of developing workforce housing in the City of Ketchum. The KCDC and development partner, GMD Development, lead by Greg Dunfield, were successful in developing Northwood Pace in 2010. Northwood Place—located north of the downtown YMCA off Saddle Road—provided the first project on city land where all 32 units are exclusively devoted to workforce housing . The development was financed with a successful tax credit from the Idaho Housing and Finance Association (IHFA). The property is holistically owned by the KCDC.

Over the years, the KCDC and development partner GMD have pursued various City of Ketchum RFPs for affordable housing projects. Despite a myriad of pushback and failed attempts to receive tax credits, the KCDC and GMD have turned their focus to Bluebird Village.

The aerial view of the 5th Street and East Avenue corner reveals a rooftop outdoor deck, indoor gym/community space, PV solar panels and a historical Cold Springs chairlift. You can also see a significant setback of the fourth-floor housing units and articulating 5th Street facade on the second and third level. Turning the corner to East Avenue exposes more contemporary external materials, grounded by the historical brick and landscaping.

Bluebird Village—located in downtown Ketchum on the corner of East Avenue and 5th Street East (old City Hall building)—has emerged as a new housing opportunity with positive support. The momentum is attributed to strong political backing and land availability through the city land lease approval, City of Ketchum and KURA funding. Also, after applying for three years, a reservation of federal housing tax credits was obtained in December 2020. The City Council approved $1.4 million from its Housing in Lieu fund (which is funded by other developments that did not provide affordable housing) and $564,000 in infrastructure funds from the Ketchum Urban Renewal Agency for the 51-unit project. Bluebird Village is now moving through the local entitlement and building permit process. Mayor Neil Bradshaw said, “We are leveraging our local resources with the federal housing tax credit program, which will generate over $12 million to help us create this much-needed community housing in a great location. It will house a number of full-time residents who can support businesses in the community.”

The history of affordable housing is provided to shed light on the underlying, fundamental issue persistent in the Wood River Valley: the workforce fueling the community in Blaine County has very few housing opportunities at reasonable rates commensurate with community income levels. Devoted employees servicing the economy are simply living the reality of the disconnect between market wages and elevated residential rental rates. The gap is widening. Naturally, this is not isolated to the Wood River Valley. However, the effect is magnified due to the lower nominal inventory of available dwelling units and the geographical constraints within city limits.

For the colorful community in the Wood River Valley to continue to flourish, residents must put critical thought to the development of affordable opportunities to preserve the vital workforce. In the words of Brett Wilson, a longtime Ketchum resident and fly-fishing guide for Silver Creek Outfitters, “This is our best—and likely our last—chance to preserve our vital workforce and salvage this harmonious, vibrant community that we have all built together.”

This article appears in the Fall 2021 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.