Friday, September 27, 2013

Affordable housing at any cost


    The Ketchum Urban Renewal Agency has been working diligently to hide its latest 24-unit rental project from the public and for good reason.
    In 2006, the URA paid $2.25 million for 211 Washington St., intending to construct underground parking with affordable housing above it on that lot and on the adjacent city-owned parking lot. The URA paid perhaps 20 percent above fair market value for the opportunity to develop both lots in conjunction. In April, 2011, with some creative bookkeeping, the URA “transferred” $640,000 taken from the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund that it had spent on the Starbucks lot to 211 Washington. According to its own official documents, the URA has invested more than $3 million in 211 Washington. Now the URA is attempting to exchange 211 Washington for two parcels owned by the Higgins group on Second Avenue between 6th and 7th streets for its project.
    Idaho Code Section 50-2011 requires that the URA receive fair value in the exchange; however, the URA’s appraisal values the two Higgins parcels combined at $616,500 while valuing 211 Washington at $1,045,000. Hardly fair value. Worse yet, the URA is abandoning its $3 million investment in 211 Washington along with the opportunity to provide much-needed parking downtown. The URA has never explained why it hasn’t graded 211 Washington for inexpensive surface parking until it has enough money to build the underground garage.
    The Higgins parcels are actually a good location for affordable housing. My objection is to the proposed radical upzone that would result in density incompatible with the surrounding neighborhood. If the Higgins group applied for a building permit today, it would not be allowed to build anything on its Tourist Zone parcel because that parcel fails to meet minimum lot-size requirements. The group would only be allowed to build three or four dwellings on its General Residential-Low Density parcel. The URA is moving from four dwellings to 24 dwellings.
    Needless to say, the URA has tried to hide this project from the public. The URA considered the land exchange application and appraisals behind closed doors on July 15, 2013. On the Friday before Labor Day weekend, the URA amended its meeting agenda to add consideration of the exchange at its meeting three days later. Recall that the city performed the same stunt when it attempted to give money to ARCH for the Evergreen project. To date, no one at the URA has accepted responsibility for that flagrant attempt to hide its behavior. Until I forced the issue, the URA never identified the Higgins parcels as the target of its exchange. When the URA begrudgingly accepted public comment, it limited that comment to two minutes per person and
denied half of the attendees any
opportunity to speak at all.
    Ketchum’s citizens need to take a stand for good government because the appointed commissioners on the URA will not. The URA must conduct the public’s business in public. While the process to date may be legal, it has not been ethical and doesn’t even approach best practices. Lack of transparency and excluding the public from the decision-making process cause turmoil and division in the community. It tells the rest of the world that Ketchum is corrupt and incompetent. That’s bad for business.

Ben Worst, an attorney, lives in Ketchum.

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