Wednesday, August 24, 2005

North Fork residents rush housing meeting

Authority hears concerns about purchase plans

Express Staff Writer

Residents from the North Fork mobile home park north of Ketchum board a bus taking them to a meeting Thursday with the Blaine-Ketchum Housing Authority. The authority heard residents' concerns prior to an executive session to discuss a deal to purchase the property. Photo by David N. Seelig

A busload of residents from the North Fork mobile home park rode to Ketchum City Hall Thursday for a meeting of the Blaine-Ketchum Housing Authority, which was set to discuss the pending purchase of the North Fork property in executive session.

The Housing Authority allowed some time before the executive session to hear residents' concerns about the future of the property north of Ketchum.

"It's been a great place to live," said Tom Baker, a 10-year mobile home owner at North Fork, who works as a roofer. He said that in 1992 he paid $160 a month in rent for his space. Today, he pays $375. "It's only gone up in the last three or four years. If the North Fork trailer park goes, I don't know where I would go."

Barker is typical of many North Fork residents in that his trailer is too old to be moved and there are few places in the county where a trailer would be allowed in any case. And, as far as his options are concerned, Barker is just learning about Housing Authority regulations governing who can qualify for various levels of affordable housing.

Ketchum Fire Chief Greg Schwab said expensive housing is the number one threat to keeping his employees close to the city where they work.

"It's tough to have paramedics respond from Shoshone," he said.

With an income of about $23,000, Barker as a single man may qualify as a candidate for an affordable housing unit being built somewhere in the county. Other residents believed that their credit records would preclude them from any kind of mortgage, even if they qualify for community housing from an income standpoint.

Housing Authority Executive Director Michael David reminded those who came for the meeting that the Housing Authority still does not own the property, but if it does succeed in buying it, at that time the authority will sit down with the residents and come up with a plan.

David said the goal of the Housing Authority is to serve people who make 20 percent of the median income in the county. A qualified candidate would not pay more than 30 percent of their gross income for shelter.

"If a person makes $20,000, we'll try to create a unit for them and no more than 30 percent (of their income) would go to housing," he said. "Our goal is to create housing—to save as many units as we can."

Currently, there are 42 mobile homes on the 3.5 acre property, but Blaine County Commission Chairwoman Sarah Michael said it is unlikely that so many could be preserved given environmental, infrastructure and financial constraints.

David and the Housing Authority board members tried to alleviate concerns that arose out of a late-breaking back-up offer made by Kingsley Murphy, Nick Harman and Chris and Jackie Flanigan, which stirred the pot both in the mobile home park and at the negotiating table last week.

North Fork resident Kathleen Reinke, who has been proactive, was one of several residents who pushed for answers.

"I want people to be straight up and honest, so we know how to plan our lives," Reinke said.

David said if the authority does acquire the property construction is not likely to begin for some two years. Murphy said that if the deal with the current owners, Sharon and Wallace Dowden, falls through, his group is committed to keeping the mobile home park open for five to 10 years.

"After that, it goes away for good," said Michael, who added that the current motivation on the part of the county and the Housing Authority is to create more permanent community housing where possible, not to displace people who live in trailer parks. She acknowledged that the move is politically challenging. "We are going out on a limb here."

One issue is the cost. Because property costs $3 million, it could be difficult to find funding for a community-housing component. One idea that has been publicized is that about half of the mobile home park could be developed with community housing if the other half had market-rate units that would subsidize it.

David said the Housing Authority is looking into other state and federal funding vehicles. So far, the county has not instituted any kind of community housing levy.

"We are on the bottom rung of the economic ladder," said Phil Jockumsen, a 30-year Wood River Valley resident, who has been a vocal advocate of his fellow North Fork residents in the face of adverse housing opportunities in the valley. "Maybe four of those trailers are new enough that we could take them (away). There is nothing for us."

As the county and the Housing Authority crunch numbers to figure out whether or not purchase of North Fork can be made economically viable for the purpose of offering community housing, Michael asked Murphy for help.

Murphy said he would be willing to cooperate if the county were to come to him with some ideas.

The board added that there would be additional time for input if and when the Housing Authority buys the property.

"We're trying to figure out if it's feasible for us to do this," said James Laski, a board member. "We understand your concerns."

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