What we can do to address our housing crisis

By Cate Huisman
Reader Contributor

My earlier piece about what we can’t do to address our crisis in workforce housing [Reader, Opinion, “What we can’t do to address our housing crisis,” April 21, 2022] may have seemed like a bit of a downer. It is frustrating to see other towns striding forward to address the same issue we are experiencing, and to discover that we don’t have the options to do what they do.

But we do have options. And several organizations are already acting on them.

Schweitzer has long considered the distinct housing needs of its workers, many of whom are seasonal. It had a successful run this past winter with its eight-bedroom Hemlock House shared living site, where 14 employees lived during the ski season. The number of residents dropped when ski season ended, but will ramp up again as the summer season gets going. 

But Schweitzer has much bigger plans. It announced early in May that construction will begin this summer on an 84-unit employee housing village off Schweitzer Plaza Drive in Ponderay. Additional units are to be added in the future, as well as community facilities and even a child care program. Since the cost of child care is often the biggest monthly expense for young families after housing, this will be a boon for Schweitzer employees. Meanwhile, Kaniksu Land Trust is addressing the issue on a wider basis by working to become the first community housing land trust in North Idaho. 

To start, KLT has invited Michael Brown, who directs a comparable trust in Bozeman, Mont., to conduct a “conversation with the community” about what such a trust would look like here. This event will be held on Thursday, June 9, from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. at Tango Café, inside the Sandpoint Center building at 414 Church St. 

In the community land trust model, donors provide land for housing and buyers buy only the houses, not the land. Keeping the home designs simple and the land cost out of the housing price helps to make the pricing work. Owners accrue equity in their homes as they would with any other home purchase, enabling them eventually to jump into market-rate housing. 

A major contributor to housing solutions in our community is Bonner Community Housing Agency, a local nongovernmental housing organization. BCHA is certified by the state as a Community Housing Development Organization, which qualifies it for modest support from the state of Idaho to cover some administrative expenses (although nothing that BCHA can use to do its own housing projects). 

BCHA has played and continues to play a role connecting individuals and groups who want to work together to meet housing needs. It worked with landowner Nancy Hadley to create the Culver’s Crossing development, which has received initial approval from the city, to include houses that local workers can afford. A variety of other creative initiatives have emerged from BCHA that I hope to cover in a future piece.

Finally, the long-awaited updating of the city’s Comprehensive Plan is apparently getting closer. City Planner Amy Tweeten has been working to bring the Planning and Zoning Commission up to speed on what has already been done, and she is in the process of reviewing a proposal from consultants to facilitate the update. The wheels of planning seem to turn slowly at City Hall, but the period for public involvement and interaction appears to be on track for late summer.

Supporting the comprehensive planning effort, the city has a study underway to identify how much land it needs for housing, as well as for commercial and industrial purposes. The study, to be completed by the end of June, should give us a more accurate picture of our supply of and demand for land for various uses. When we left off work on the Comp Plan two years ago, the average price of a home in Sandpoint was approximately half what it is now, so having the updated data from this study will be invaluable. 

Citizens will have an opportunity to hear about it when the results are presented to the City Council, perhaps as soon as their Wednesday, June 15 meeting. Check sandpointidaho.gov/your-government/meeting-agendas to find out when it will be on the agenda.

With the Comp Plan update, KLT’s conversation with the community and the impending presentation of the land use study, there will be plenty of opportunities for citizens concerned about the affordability and availability of local housing to share their insights and hear those of others. Don’t be bashful — your city needs to hear from you. Our best hope for solving the housing issue will lie in hearing out our fellow citizens, speaking out ourselves and being open to new ideas and approaches.

Cate Huisman served for 13 years on the city of Sandpoint’s Planning and Zoning Commission.

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