Wednesday, March 1, 2006

'Big home' fee could fuel affordable housing plans

Two inseparable and undeniable facts continue to stalk discussions about affordable housing in Blaine County.

First, need is paramount. As the county grows, affordable dwellings that meet workers' needs are disappearing.

Second, a consistent method of creating and funding community housing still has not been established.

The Blaine County commissioners have now turned their hands to developing a program through an ordinance that would require new homes of more than 2,500 square feet to pay a fee.

The proposed sliding-scale fee would vary, depending not only on square footage but also whether the new residence is in the north, mid- or south valley.

A 3,000- to 3,999-square-foot home in the north would pay a $6,956 fee, while owners of the same size home in the south valley would pay $3,927, collectible as part of the building permit process.

Anticipating criticisms and objections to the proposal, Commissioner Dennis Wright's perspective was right on target: "If what is presented here today is not a good idea, we want to hear ideas on how it can be improved."

But time is not on the side of Blaine County. Decisions must be made.

A large part of the affordable housing shortage can be laid at the doorstep of the Idaho Legislature. It has denied counties flexibility and enacted restrictive laws that prevent counties from having "home rule" powers to enact local taxes with voter approval to fund special needs.

The tax restrictions on counties directly affect their ability to keep pace with growth and to provide services demanded by the influx of new, large homes.

So, Blaine County is left to devise creative new approaches to a problem that has all the hallmarks of a crisis in the making.

Plainly put, without housing for workers who man local governments and businesses, the growing population will find services undermanned or even in short supply in due course. Workers necessarily either must search for jobs where they can afford homes, or move farther south and reside far from work.

Loss of emergency services personnel—fire, police and medical—can be especially risky for a growing community.

The concept of fees for larger homes is not original or new. The city of Sun Valley has adopted such a system. The idea is cropping up elsewhere in other Western states, which are part of a boom in large, new, primary and secondary homes.

The search for workable ideas to develop affordable housing has been under way for at least a decade or more in Blaine County.

Now's the time for action.

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