Community January 12, 2009
Building True Community
Defining how we live together
“I was hopping around for a year and a half. It was really frustrating. I had my masters in architecture, and when I wasn’t living with my parents, I was living out of boxes. I was going to be the first of four generations of hardworking people who couldn’t stay here …”
—Forrest Dick

Although one of the selling points of the Sun Valley area is its sense of community, it has fallen far short of the accepted definition of the term in recent years. A lack of affordable housing options for the working classes has meant that a large section of the larger “community” has been relegated to living elsewhere.

Consider Lisa and Rich Pettit. She is a private piano instructor with a masters degree in music therapy. He is an electrician. They moved to the Wood River Valley two-and-a-half years ago to live, work, and raise their three kids, Haylee, 9, Joshua, 6, and Rachel, 3. Since then, like so many others, Rich and Lisa have exhausted numerous avenues in an effort to purchase a home in this high-priced market. Today, they still find themselves renting in Hailey and pondering whether they need to move to another area.

Lisa feels that the failure to ease the housing burden for families like hers comes at the expense of a healthy, vibrant community. “We’re talking about people who contribute a lot to the community,” she says.

For almost two years, despite having a professional job with high earning potential, Forrest Dick was disappointed in his search for financing that would enable him to buy a home in the Valley. “I would talk to real estate agents and they would offer me places in Fairfield or Shoshone because that is all I could afford,” he recalls. “When it came to deed restricted properties, affordable housing, it seemed that no bank would try to get me a loan even though the affordable housing cost the same as the properties in Fairfield or Shoshone. Finally, I found a bank that was willing to work with me and we blazed a trail for other affordable housing loans.”

Enter Blaine Ketchum Housing Authority (BKHA), an agency formed in 1997 by Blaine County with the mission of providing an adequate supply of affordable housing.

BKHA’s Executive Director Michael David, has seen an increase in the number of people who have been forced to leave the Valley as real estate prices have continued to outpace incomes. This includes local young people like Dick, who leave the area for college and struggle with their return due to high housing costs and a lack of well-paying jobs. “It is so important for kids who grew up here to have the ability to return and contribute to the community,” David says.

The BKHA currently maintains a waiting list of 350 applicants for the Valley’s limited number of affordable housing units. At this point, across Blaine County, there are only 28 units in the affordable housing inventory. An additional 44 are under construction, with another 54 slated to begin construction soon. Ten units between Hailey and Ketchum were made available to people on the list in the fall of 2005. Dick was among the lucky. The Pettits are still waiting.

David says the BKHA’s current waiting list is a substantial understatement of the number of people who currently pay well over 30 percent of their income for housing costs, are living in substandard conditions, or are commuting from outside the county. “If you’re spending more than that,” he says, “you aren’t putting money back into the economy.”

The negative effects of high housing costs haven’t been limited to working families. From Main Street in Ketchum to Main Street in Bellevue, the Valley’s employers are beginning to feel the pinch. “People are starting to pay attention,” David says. “It’s hitting employers in the pocketbook, because they can’t recruit and keep good employees.”

No employer has felt the sting of runaway housing costs more acutely than the Blaine County School District, and no one understands this more clearly than Superintendent Dr. Jim Lewis. “For the past ten to fifteen years it has been difficult for teachers and school district employees to find affordable housing in the Valley,” Lewis says. “Now, it is impossible.”

Although the salaries of Blaine County teachers are 140 percent of the state average, teachers typically stay with the district for less than five years. They cite the cost of housing as the number-one reason for leaving. “We don’t want to become just a training district for teachers,” Lewis says. “We want our teachers to be able to plan a future in this community as they would in any other community.”

Under Lewis’s leadership, the school district is working in partnership with several national and local organizations, city governments, and developers to build affordable housing solutions for their employees in Blaine County. “School districts aren’t typically actively involved in the housing development business, but the cost-of-housing issue has necessitated it,” Lewis says. “All towns in the county are in the same boat.”

One of the groups partnering with the school district to create more affordable housing is Ketchum-based Advocates for Real Community Housing (ARCH), which began its grassroots effort to bring awareness to the housing problem a year and a half ago. Since then, the organization has taken a more proactive stance, working to make affordable housing part of the Valley’s culture by creating community land trusts, and through the purchase and renovation of existing housing units. In addition, ARCH is in the process of creating the Housing Resource Center as a clearinghouse for all related ideas and opportunities.

No one disputes the severity of the affordable housing problem. The discrepancies lie in potential solutions. Rebekah Helzel, ARCH’s founder and executive director, says that the local community needs to move from merely understanding the problem to taking a more active role. “The longer people drag their feet, the harder it’s going to be to ease this crisis,” Helzel says. “More community leaders are now willing to make a commitment to this issue.”

Sun Valley and Hailey are currently the only cities in the Valley with ordinances mandating that all new developments provide a percentage of affordable, deed-restricted housing units. Deed-restricted homes have their resale values controlled in order to keep them affordable. When these homes are placed on the market, their price is set according to a formula that allows only a small amount of appreciation.

“We have to do something before one more hole is dug, or one more housing unit is scrapped,” ARCH’s Helzel says. “Once a development is built without affordable housing, that opportunity is lost forever.”

Freelancer Elizabeth Belts Kauffman is an Idaho native and lives in Ketchum with her husband J.D. Belts Kauffman. In addition to writing, her passions include photography, travel and exploring the many natural areas throughout the great American West.

This article appears in the Spring 2006 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.