Thursday, December 08, 2022

MY TURN: Workforce housing — getting past the brick wall

by LYNN FLEMING/Guest Opinion
| November 18, 2022 1:00 AM

What has for decades made Coeur d’Alene, Hayden, Post Falls, Rathdrum and Spirit Lake so desirable to call home was a living and lifestyle that allowed all incomes to co-exist in relative harmony and equality. Egalitarian living in North Idaho was the norm.

In the past decade, we have seen a tipping of the scales toward wealth and wage gaps similar to prewar and Depression haves and have-nots. The golden era of the middle-class resurgence after 1950 has evaporated in this era of tech wealth abundance and frozen wages for the workers at all skill levels. No adult over 25 should have to have a roommate in order to pay rent when 50% of their wages go to accommodations.

We are at the breaking point of having a worker vacuum as we move to 60% retirees in our area and rising service demands shackled by impossible housing costs or availability for workers throughout Kootenai County. The people who need to keep North Idaho running cannot afford our sky-high accommodations.

I am not a fan of government support and it cannot move fast enough to shore up our area in a timely manner. Many people are attempting to lean on taxpayer dollars on multiple fronts in the public sector. Co-ops, tax breaks, grants, etc. all take time. That is only half the solution. We need fast-track results these routes rarely provide.

Desperate times call for inventive solutions. It is time to turn to private monies — Kootenai Health, Avista Utilities, N.I.C., Cd'A School District, developer/builders for construction workers, Hagadone Corp., Costco or Home Depot need to fund and build their own housing for their employees. Rather than lose their workforce and retain/attract employees, many cities allow for housing that is more compact and less parking intensive. Service levels, timeliness and breadth of skills have dropped in our area because we cannot convince the workforce to live as paupers for the pleasure of the owners and users.

Universities have built faculty housing for centuries, Schweitzer Resort built staff apartments at the base of the hill, while a local Ponderay business owner is building a 24-unit apartment building to assist and retain factory workers. Destination resorts and national parks have for decades constructed staff quarters to keep their doors open.

The younger talent we need and want to fill all the jobs we are losing to attrition and retirement do not arrive here with the funds to buy or supplement their housing. They want to live here — we need to give them a secure start. Let’s turn to the past, where the companies making money off the workforce assisted in their housing start in return for retention and a decent living standard.

We are at a crossroads and no amount of “meetings” or “goal-based documents” or “taxpayer-funded approaches” move the needle fast enough. Desperation finds a solution and we should lean heavily on private enterprise to solve this dilemma rather than wait for yet another forum or workshop or change in interest rates to open the floodgates. Employers need to invest back into their employees and not wait for publicly funded, strings-attached solutions that may or may not appear.

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Lynn M. Fleming is a Coeur d'Alene resident.

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