Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Solving the affordable housing puzzle

by DAN GOOKIN/Guest Opinion
| March 12, 2022 1:00 AM

One of the many pieces of the affordable housing puzzle is the track record of government making housing less affordable. Specifically, the history of the City of Coeur d’Alene’s urban renewal agency and its successful efforts at gentrification.

The term “affordable housing” is a bumper sticker for a larger problem. Housing is unaffordable because wages have stagnated in this country for decades. As was mentioned at the Feb. 15 City Council meeting on the Compressive Plan, housing is either high-end, market rate, or subsidized by the government. It’s affordable if you can afford it. Jobs are the key.

In Idaho, one of the best tools for attracting high paying, career level jobs is urban renewal. It’s been used successfully around the state to attract employers and offer our citizens decent, quality employment. If you have a well-paying job, you can afford to live here.

In Coeur d’Alene, when urban renewal is not being used to fund showcase projects for politicians who distrust the public vote, it builds high-end housing for part-time residents. It’s been happening for decades. Could this effort provide one reason why homes here are unaffordable?

Back in the late 1990s, I heard it was the City Council’s goal to promote high-end homes, specifically third and fourth homes, for rich people who don’t live here. These people would pay property taxes year-round but, due to their part time residency, use few services. This policy describes how urban renewal has operated for decades. And their philosophy of planting high-end homes continues to this day.

In its recently closed downtown district, urban renewal supported construction of two high-rise condo towers. The typical unit sells for around one million dollars. Luxury homes line the river and high-end condos frame Main Street in Riverstone. Condos and townhomes are proposed for the new Hospital district.

The Atlas urban renewal district is packed with high-end homes like sardines in a can. When the so-called “triangle piece” was brought into the Atlas site, the City Council debated what to do with it. Some officials suggested affordable housing, but they were overruled by those who wanted high end housing — even a gated community — due to the top-dollar property taxes such homes bring in.

Yet all this time, urban renewal could have been used to bring in the jobs that make housing affordable, as has been done successfully elsewhere in Idaho.

At their annual presentation to Council in January, the urban renewal agency boasted that over 20 years they helped to create 1,500 new jobs. This figure is dismal, and an embarrassing side note to their true success: luxury housing.

It is within your City Council’s power to redirect urban renewal away from planting high-end development and to focus on the needs of our citizens, to bring in jobs.

Imagine if urban renewal here were re-created as the Coeur d’Alene Jobs Corps? Think of the businesses that they could have brought in over 20 years! Post Falls did it. The super wealthy can find somewhere else to live part time. But the people who live here now might have some decent jobs and a house they can afford had city leaders prioritized jobs over development.

Such a change is still possible — if the will is present to make it happen.

• • •

Dan Gookin is a Coeur d’Alene resident.

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