How Bonner Community Housing Agency is helping to house locals

By Cate Huisman
Reader Contributor

In my last piece about area housing policy [Opinion, “What we can do to address our housing crisis,” May 25, 2022], I mentioned that I wanted to write more about the work of the Bonner Community Housing Agency (BCHA). As a designated Community Housing Development Organization (CHDO), BCHA has long worked with low-income individuals in our area to find housing. 

But prices have become so high now that even middle-income individuals can’t find a place to live. Within the past 15 months, during which home values have doubled in some areas, our market has progressed from irrational to untenable. So BCHA has expanded its reach to this group. Director Rob Hart says they are now trying to find housing for people making $50,000 to $60,000, which has become low-income relative to housing. “We don’t like phrases such as low income,” he says, “because a good living wage elsewhere is low-income here.”

A start to its programs for this middle-income group is the planned Good Samaritan Inn — for workers Hart calls the “surprised homeless.” These are people who have been living and working in Sandpoint, perhaps for years, and are suddenly homeless because the rentals they have been occupying have been sold and are no longer affordable and/or available. 

“These are highly qualified, educated, well-employed people living in tents and cars,” says Hart. The facility will be built entirely with donations and grants, and it has received site approval in the city of Ponderay. Unfortunately, it won’t be completed until 2024.

For a longer-term solution, BCHA has several programs for what it calls Income-Based Local Housing, including variations that it can put in place for employers, landowners and investors. BCHA’s services make it possible for these individuals to use their resources for the common good — or the good of their employees — while making cost-effective use of their land or investment funds. The agency’s services can minimize some of the costs, making it possible to  provide housing for working people at a reasonable profit.

In these programs, BCHA assists with screening buyers and renters and charges no commission to either sellers or buyers. Potential buyers must be employed locally — that is, they must be able to commute to their job from the home that BCHA works to help them buy. And they must have an income of no more than $125,000 — 120% of the local median income. Culver’s Crossing, which received final development plan approval just last week from the City Council, is currently the most visible example of this effort. 

Buyers must live in the home as their primary residence for at least four years, and must sell the home back to the original landowner if they leave within that time. The program allows for some set amount of appreciation in the price of the home when it is sold back.

Buyers are free to sell as they wish at the beginning of their fifth year of ownership. This gives them a foot in the market door, but the four-year waiting period discourages investors and speculators whose primary purpose is not to provide needed housing but instead to profit from rapidly rising land values. (This is not to say that theirs is not a legitimate business; it just doesn’t help our community build housing for people who work here.)

A specific version of this program is for employers who may lose potential employees who are put off by the cost of buying a home here. BCHA’s Employer-Directed Housing Program enables employers to use land they may purchase or already own to provide housing for their employees and recoup their initial investment, over a period of years, through rents or mortgages. Depending on what the employer sets up, employers may lease homes to employees or employees may buy homes, with the stipulation that they sell the home back to the employer when they leave. 

Within its Income-Based Local Housing Program, BCHA has five projects in the works in North Idaho right now. They expect eventually to add more than 800 affordable units to the housing inventory, including the 49 at Culver’s Crossing. Hart anticipates that at least one other should become public within a month. 

“With Culver’s Crossing, BCHA is doing something that’s not been done before, at least here in Sandpoint,” he says. 

With new Planning and Zoning Commission members and new city planning staff coming on board, the approvals have taken a lot of time. Meanwhile, Hart says, “there is such a need that we are overwhelmed with demand” whenever the agency announces a new  project. 

Nevertheless, BCHA is working hard to meet that demand. For landowners and investors who want to address our housing crisis, the agency is ready to help.

Cate Huisman is a writer, editor and journalist who served for 13 years on the city of Sandpoint’s Planning and Zoning Commission.

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