Wednesday, March 15, 2006

ARCH founder 'humbled' by community award

Helzel named Citizen of the Year


By STEVE BENSON
Express Staff Writer

In October, Rebekah Helzel, center, was all smiles when she thought she made the winning bid during an IRS auction for three apartment buildings in Ketchum. But the IRS interrupted the celebration, claiming Helzel's bid was $1.2 million shy of the $3.5 million minimum. Despite lengthy negotiations with the Idaho U.S. Attorney's Office, the buildings remain in the possession of the IRS, although Helzel said another auction seems likely. Photo by Willy Cook

For the past couple of years Rebekah Helzel has been on a mission to promote and expand affordable housing in Blaine County.

In response to her tireless efforts, Helzel, who's the founder of Advocates for Real Community Housing (ARCH), will be honored as the Citizen of the Year during the annual Community Awards Dinner hosted by the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber and Visitors Bureau on April 14.

Helzel, a transplant from Mill Valley, Calif., has been a Ketchum resident for six years. She and her husband, Larry, moved to the area because it was a small, beautiful, funky town with seemingly unlimited natural resources.

But Helzel wasn't anticipating a massive shortage of affordable housing.

"After volunteering and getting to know the community, I well understood the impact housing was having on the people—the makeup, the feel and the economic viability of the community," she said.

She watched helplessly as friends packed up their belongings and drove out of town for good—forced out by the high cost of living and unaffordable housing. Helzel, a former investment banker, started researching solutions.

"I stumbled on some people in California who had done successful community housing (projects)," she said. "Then I discovered you could do a lot. It wasn't hopeless."

In the fall of 2004, she founded ARCH, a non-profit organization based in Ketchum, and it became her full time job.

Since then, great strides have been made, but the area is still woefully behind the competition, she said.

"Hope is not lost," she said. "Things have changed quite dramatically, things are going very well.

"But we can't stop, we have a lot of work to do."

Exactly how Blaine County fell so far behind the curve—the city of Aspen, Colo., has approximately 2,500 affordable housing units compared to just 48 in all of Blaine County—can not be attributed to one source alone. But Helzel claims the Idaho Legislature, which she calls "antiquated," hasn't helped.

While the state was once driven overwhelmingly by the agricultural industry, Helzel says the Legislature "has been slow to realize that's not who (we) are anymore."

And since Idaho is not a "home rule" state—a delegation of power from the state to sub-units of governments, including counties—Helzel said Blaine County is short on options. Several attempts to boost affordable housing through the passage of local-option taxes have been shot down by the legislature this year.

"We have absolutely no control over our own destiny," she said.

She feels there is also a "resistance to outsiders" who want to help solve the problem.

"We're pretty isolated and there's not an openness to someone coming in and saying we have this problem," Helzel said.

The effort has also faced challenges locally.

In October, three apartment buildings near the corner of Rember Street and Bird Drive, just north of the River Run base area, went up for auction. The buildings, which had been seized by the Internal Revenue Service, would have provided 14 affordable housing units. With the backing of the city of Ketchum and the Blaine-Ketchum Housing Authority, Helzel placed a winning bid of $2.3 million. But the IRS interrupted the celebration, claiming Helzel's bid was $1.2 million shy of the $3.5 million minimum. Despite lengthy negotiations with the Idaho U.S. Attorney's Office, the buildings remain in the possession of the IRS, although Helzel said another auction seems likely.

"I've done all I could," she said.

And on March 1, the entire Blaine-Ketchum Housing Authority Board resigned after the Blaine County Commissioners appointed Sun Valley city administrator Virginia Egger to the board as a county representative. But the board claims the appointment violated state statutes. The county commissioners maintain that the appointment was legal and Egger was the most qualified candidate for the unpaid position. Helzel declined to comment on the matter.

But despite the hurdles, Helzel maintains she's not frustrated or growing tired. Instead, she continues to focus on her education campaign. And with the situation as dire as it is, Helzel said that hasn't been hard.

"Because we've come into the process so late, the economic and social consequences are becoming obvious to even the casual observer," she said. "People can see that something is wrong. And that has helped us in the education process, because they want to see (the valley) survive and thrive."

Michael David, executive director of the Blaine-Ketchum Housing Authority, said Helzel has been an invaluable resource.

"This community is so lucky to have someone like Rebekah working on the affordable housing crisis," David said.

Helzel thinks she's the lucky one.

"One of the most encouraging things for me is the way the community has embraced the issue," she said. "This is a great community full of great people.

"The greatest honor to me is to know there are so many fabulous people that do so much for this community. I'm really humbled to be given this award."

Coinciding with Helzel's efforts are the city and county governments, which all continue to search for solutions.

Sun Valley and Hailey have already adopted inclusionary housing ordinances, which require a certain percentage of affordable housing units to be included in all future developments. And the county commissioners are currently exploring two similar ordinances for the unincorporated areas of Blaine County.

If efforts continue, Helzel doesn't think it's unreasonable for Blaine County to have about 1,500 affordable housing units by 2015.

"There are 5,000 housing units being planned over the next 10 years in the county alone," she said. "There's no reason at least 20 percent of those shouldn't be affordable."

Helzel will be presented with her award during the Community Awards Dinner on Friday, April 14, at 7 p.m. in the River Run Lodge.




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