Friday, September 28, 2007

Workforce Housing Priority List 101

Blaine County Housing Authority helps clarify application process

Express Staff Writer

This affordable housing unit, which falls into category 4, meaning 80 to 100 percent of the county?s average median income, is one of the few rental units in the Wood River Valley. With more than 400 applicants on the Blaine County Housing Authority?s Workforce Priority Housing List and only 15 units currently available, supply is far from accommodating the various housing needs of county residents. The housing authority hopes it can work with cities and developers to increase the variety and number of units. Photo by David N. Seelig

While cities throughout the Wood River Valley continue to debate the appropriate methods for developing and managing affordable housing, one thing is abundantly obvious: There's no shortage of demand.

Cygnia Rapp, program director for the Blaine County Housing Authority, said there are currently 408 applicants on the authority's Workforce Housing Priority List, which is one of it's most important tools for matching prospective homebuyers with affordable housing developers. The authority, formerly know as the Blaine-Ketchum Housing Authority, was established by Blaine County and the city of Ketchum to develop and implement various methods for providing affordable houses, both for sale and rent.

As part of the ARCH Community Housing Trust's Community Housing Week, the housing authority looked to expand the list further by explaining the application process during a presentation on Tuesday, Sept. 25.

"This is really one of the most important meetings of the week," ARCH founder Rebekah Helzel said to an audience of around 40 in the Liberty Theater in Hailey. "These people are the reason we do this."

Unfortunately, like the issue of affordable housing supply, many regard the application process as complex, something the housing authority readily admits to, but says is necessary in order to make sure it's done efficiently.

The housing authority gives priority to applicants on a variety of factors, including income, household size, length of continuous employment and if it's considered essential services, such as in the fire or police departments, and overall net worth. As well, applicants must live and work full time in Blaine County. The authority gives a certain amount of "points" for these characteristics, calculating a score that determines his or her level of priority. Also adding points are the completion of a homebuyer's education course or sitting down with a lender to improve an applicant's credit.

Applicants are slotted into a category by annual income, which range from 50 percent of the average median income for Blaine County, income category 2, to over 120 percent of the median income, category 6. These categories are calculated annually for Blaine County be the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

While the number of categories goes up to 10, or over 200 percent of the county's median income, Rapp said within the current market, applicants in income categories 4 and 5 might be able to find similarly priced housing on the open market.

When a unit becomes available, the housing authority matches the price with a certain income category and offers it to the applicant with the most points with the proper household size needs. Rapp said that once shown the unit, the applicant has about one week to decide whether or not to buy before it's shown to the next person on the list and, therefore, can keep the houses utilized as much as possible. Because of this points system, there's no specific time one person can stay on the list, but it's not unusual for it to last well over a year.

The current stock of affordable housing, of which there are 15 currently available, doesn't necessarily lend itself to that, as applicants are free to choose what they like. And, as made obvious by the 11 Agave Place units that have been siting vacant at the intersection of Buttercup Road and state Highway 75 since spring, there is a disparity between what's needed and what's offered.

While approximately 70 units are scheduled for development in Hailey in conjunction with the Old Cutters and Sweetwater subdivisions, housing authority Executive Director Jim Fackrell said cities need to work with developers to ensure more units match the needs of categories 2 and 3, where there are significantly more applicants. This includes adding rental units, of which there are only six, all located in Ketchum.

But as the housing authority and cities are in the process of working through these complex issues, the list remains a valuable asset.

Mitch Wood, who rents an affordable housing unit above the Idaho Independent Bank branch on Main Street in Ketchum, recognized that the process can seem daunting, but emphasized that above all else it works.

"The authority was extremely helpful and are doing their best to do a difficult job," Wood said. "I'm sure people can get frustrated with the time it takes, but real estate is very expensive here and it's made even more difficult given the seasonal nature of a lot of employment in the valley."

Wood's apartment was available for viewing as part of housing week, and for those who stepped inside, the great potential of the system was clearly visible, with large windows facing Baldy and an absolute minimum amount of walking distance to anywhere in Ketchum.

"I'm truly pleased with how everything went," Wood said. "It definitely beat paying $400,000 for something similar across the street."

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