Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Agencies prioritize ideas for housing

Rehabilitation of older homes and construction of new rental housing top the list


By TONY EVANS
Express Staff Writer

A planning session attended by affordable-housing advocates and stakeholders yielded four immediate priorities on the path to securing long-term affordable housing options in Blaine County.

The session—on Friday, Dec. 9, at the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood in Ketchum—was attended by 20 people, including representatives of the Blaine County Housing Authority, ARCH Community Housing Trust, the Ketchum Community Development Corp., city and county officials, investors, and representatives from the real estate and banking communities.

Consultant Peter Werwath presented 11 options, based on his 25-year career providing affordable housing in Durango, Colo., Santa Fe, N.M., and elsewhere.

The top priorities—based on a straw poll conducted following the meeting—were:

- Acquisition and rehabilitation of homes for deed-restricted sale.

- Increased coordination of agencies working to provide affordable housing.

- Collection and publication of affordable-housing statistics.

-  Construction of tax-credit funded rental housing units.

All of these efforts are under way to some extent in Blaine County. A recurring theme during the session was how to justify affordable-housing efforts while real estate prices are at a 10-year low.

"Competition with the real estate community is real and should not be swept under the rug. We should give them [real estate agents] the benefit of respect," Werwath said.

"Some tenants will be taken away from the open market using federal money. But if you want to make an omelet, you have to crack a few eggs," he said.

Options that were discussed that did not get much support included purchasing property during the down market to supply a "land bank" for the future, providing loans to landlords for rehabilitation of free-market units, and updating government ordinances to secure affordable housing.

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"We saw the housing gap in the 1990s," said County Commissioner Larry Schoen. "We tried to address it with ordinances. Now we have a second chance, but the county has barely enough to cover its own capital needs. We should use history as a guide."

Recent history includes successful challenges to laws requiring affordable housing from developers. These challenges spread across the state, leading to their repeal in Blaine County.

Local history also includes an impressive build-up of 369 affordable-housing units in recent years in the Wood River Valley.

An affordable-housing needs assessment released last month by ARCH and the Blaine County Housing Authority indicated that 480 additional units are needed to meet demand, based on countywide property assessments and median-income statistics. The assessment states that 50 percent of those units should be rental units, and 50 percent for sale.

Schoen pointed to a recently approved 15-unit development north of Ketchum as an indication of the county's willingness to proceed with the development of affordable housing. The development was given a density bonus in exchange for providing five deed-restricted rental units.

"It was passed in one hour," Schoen said.

He advocated for additional efforts to put together local investors with affordable-housing agencies to create results.

Yet the valley's recent history also includes a profusion of reduced-price housing units of all kinds. The needs assessment states that 110 houses are for sale for less than $200,000, mostly in Hailey and Bellevue. Werwath said many of these houses would be affordable to families making as little as $45,000 to $50,000 per year. The affordable-housing needs assessment was geared toward a family of three making about $57,000 per year.

"But these families are going to need help in buying those homes because lending standards are tough," Werwath said.

Werwath also noted that 80 percent of residents in the county are "housing burdened," meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their total income on housing. He said housing-burdened owners are not all concentrated at the lower-income levels in the valley.

"There is a significant cost burden at the above-$75,000 income levels, which is very unusual for most communities," he said.

Most participants at the meeting spoke in favor of taking advantage of the depressed market to secure housing for low-income earners, before the market turns around and real estate prices begin to rise.

Exorbitant housing costs led years ago to the formation of many of the groups represented in the room on Friday.

ARCH Executive Director Michelle Griffith said she would increasingly support increasing the inventory of deed-restricted homes for deed-restricted sale and rentals.

"I don't want my kids to face it all over again," she said.

Tony Evans: tevans@mtexpress.com




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