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Growth in Kootenai County leads to a housing shortage

Geoffrey Roth/Northwest Public Broadcasting
Coeur d'Alene is no longer a sleepy little town by the lake.

Multiple organizations work to combat Coeur d’Alene housing crisis

“It’s pretty crazy to see how elevated prices of real estate have gone up, and to a point where it almost seems kind of unobtainable, even for somebody with a college degree in engineering," said Chad Dunkel, a research support scientist at the University of Idaho who grew up in Sandpoint. He’s been looking for housing in Bonner and Kootenai counties for more than two years.

“Ideally, I’d stay in the Pacific Northwest, but I’ve really kind of broadened my search to wherever my job takes me. It’s less about where I want to live and where I can make a living,” he said.

Dunkel said he has noticed the huge discrepancy between income and the cost of living and says it only seems to be getting worse in north Idaho.

A recent study released from the University of Idaho showcases the challenges of the housing market in Kootenai County, and concludes it’s only getting worse.

Steven Peterson, the economist who led the study, said houses in Kootenai County went from being affordable to unaffordable in just five years.

“It’s the speed by which these housing prices increased that took me quite by surprise,” he said.

It's a problem that threatens to interrupt the region's growing economy, said Gynii Gilliam, president and CEO of the Coeur d’Alene Area Economic Development Corporation.

The organization helps local businesses create jobs, and address critical community issues like housing and infrastructure. She said it’s hard for businesses to grow when there are not enough homes for people to live.

Before the 2008 recession wiped out the construction industry in the United States, Gilliam said spec building, or building move-in ready homes, was common in Kootenai County.

“They would go build a housing subdivision and people would come and buy homes," she said. "Then the recession hit and from that point on, a lot of developers wanted to pre-sell an X percentage of their homes before they even started building because nobody could afford to take that gamble that they were taking prior to the recession.“

Gilliam said it’s one of the reasons the Coeur d’Alene community, and others around the country, continuously fell further and further behind in home construction.

She and the groups involved in the study are trying to stress to developers the importance of continuing to build homes working people in Kootenai County can afford.

“Otherwise we’re pricing out our nurses, our policemen, our firefighters, our teachers,” she said.

Coeur d’Alene Mayor Jim Hammond says he plans to speak with other mayors in the area to come up with strategies to create more affordable housing.

“Now, the current housing crisis is not just a crisis lack of inventory, it’s a crisis of affordability,” he said.

Hammond said, on the west side of Coeur d’Alene, a large swath of farmland has recently been sold to a developer. He says if that developer comes to the city, he will work with them to ensure there is affordable housing within the residential development.

Hammond has his own reasons to do that. He says his grandchildren are finishing up college and want to live in the area.

“But I don’t know how they’re going to be able to do that. So, the motivation is just as personal for me as for anybody,” he says.

Maggie Lyons works for a non-profit focused on bringing housing to low income residents of north Idaho. She said a shocking revelation of the study was that low income for Kootenai County means much of the local workforce.

“Workers who are making anywhere between $26 up to $52 an hour can’t afford a home," she said.

Lyons is involved with other organizations working to bridge the divide between the working poor and affordable homes and says the problem goes even deeper.

“It’s really an education on how we don’t understand poverty. We’re not poverty-informed as a people," she said.

Lyons said poverty is complex and the same solution won’t work for everyone. She said the purpose of the study was to give the group a non-agenda-driven, factual data report on what is happening in the Coeur d’Alene community.

“It’s really important, I think, when we’re talking about these solutions. This is homeownership solutions,” she said. “We have to figure out how to build $200,000 to $350,000 priced homes.”

Lyons said solutions are already in the works. Her organization is currently purchasing land from landowners willing to sell at cost rather than market rate so they can write off the difference as a tax deduction."

"Community land trusts, where the leases are tied to the homes, and the appreciation of the home value is tied to the Consumer Price Index, might be another solution to affordability in perpetuity, she said. “That’s a private solution to providing the land for this public housing effort.”

Another important part of the solution, Lyons said, is the outreach.

“We’re presenting to councils. We’re presenting to rotaries. We’re presenting to different municipalities, everybody that we can think of, anybody that’s willing to hear and listen. Employers, we’re talking to as much as we can, because we’re trying to educate now," she said.

Gilliam from the economic development corporation says many members of the community think putting a stop to building new homes will prevent more people from moving in.

“But what that really does is hike up the prices for the few that are available to be purchased,” she said. “And because the dollar price keeps going up, people’s property taxes keep going up.”

Gilliam says this most hurts the residents who are on fixed incomes, like Social Security or disability, who risk losing their homes when they can no longer afford the high property taxes, driven up by the short supply of housing.

“This community does come together and I have hope that this is one of those times, and we will help solve this problem together," she said.

Raised along the Snake River Canyon in southern Idaho, Lauren Paterson reports on culture and socioeconomics in the Pacific Northwest. Her stories focus on working class and tribal communities.