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Coronavirus Pandemic Exposes Inequality In Idaho Tourism Community

Rachel Cohen/Boise State Public Radio
Andrea Ruiz, a warehouse assistant at the Hunger Coalition, packs snack bags for local schools at the Bellevue headquarters.

Jenni Franklin feels like she was pushed out. “It was hard and it was heartbreaking for us,” she said of having to move away from her home of 10 years. In August, she relocated from Hailey to Twin Falls, in search of a more affordable place for her family of six to live.


Originally from Iowa, she was attracted to Blaine County for its proximity to the mountains, and, at the time, it had a low cost of living compared to many other resort communities in the West.

When she and her ex-husband first moved to Hailey, they rented a three-bedroom apartment for $750 a month. Five years later, the landlord put it up for sale and the new rental they found cost almost twice as much.

Franklin, who’s worked on ski hills, in restaurants and now at a dance studio, said wages don’t seem to be increasing. 

Data from Sun Valley Economic Development shows wages in Blaine County only increased by roughly 1% each year between 2010 and 2018. Housing prices, in contrast, have continued to rise by larger margins, while the supply has declined dramatically. 

This imbalance is a threat to the valley’s economic stability, according to the economic development organization. When workers can’t live in the community, businesses struggle

These trends are not new, but to several nonprofit leaders, residents, realtors and economic experts, there’s a sense that the pandemic has exposed and heightened inequality in the valley.

The Hunger Coalition, a Bellevue-based organization combating food insecurity, fed one in five county residents in a given year before the pandemic. In the past couple months, it has distributed food at drive-up sites to about 300 families, or more than 800 individuals, each week. That’s roughly two to three times the amount of people the organization saw in the same time last year.

When businesses shut down in March, a group came together to form the Blaine County Charitable Fund, which provides emergency aid, most frequently to service and hospitality workers for housing costs. By June, it had assisted 117 households with more than $130,000.

Credit Courtesy of The Hunger Coalition

“And at some point I started to realize that this wasn't really living,” Franklin said. She’s worked five jobs a year, usually three at one time. “There's no getting out and recreating with the kids if you're working all these hours.”

After her divorce, Franklin was priced out of her old rental and got a new apartment through Blaine County Housing Authority and ARCH Community Housing Trust for less than $1,000 a month. But, years later, with a new husband and a growing family, they outgrew the space. 

They tried to build a place of their own and cashed out their retirement on land in Carey where they planned to put a modular home. The land came with several restrictions, it turned out, making it difficult to build in the way they wanted and cheaply. They needed a place quickly, so they left.

Credit Rachel Cohen/Boise State Public Radio
Jenni Franklin recently moved to Twin Falls, after living in Hailey for years.

It wasn’t easy for Franklin to leave for Twin Falls. She shares custody with her ex-husband who has a higher-paying job. So, to move out of the county to a more affordable place, she had to get her ex-husband to sign legal documents, saying it was okay to move with the kids. 

Jody Enriquez, another long-time resident of Hailey, recently came to a similar crossroads.

“People are like, ‘Well, you could find somewhere else, move somewhere else.’ But, that wasn't something we wanted to do because this is our home,” she said.

She and her husband rented the same house in Hailey — a farmhouse on 13 and a half acres — for eight years from an out-of-state landlord. 

“It was really, really awesome,” Enriquez said.

Then, the landlord decided to sell the house. It was always a possibility, but it happened so fast, amid record demand for real estate in the valley. All of a sudden, they had 30 days to find a new place in July. The timing couldn’t have been worse. She is an estate manager and he’s an audio engineer. Because of the pandemic, their work came to a halt and they had to go on unemployment. 

They qualified for three months of rental assistance from the Idaho Housing and Finance Association. They put ads in the paper, posted on Facebook, asked friends, but they couldn't find a place to rent. Without a lease, they didn’t receive the assistance. 

Finally, they found a fifth-wheel camper and put their stuff in storage. They’re parked at a friend’s house in Bellevue because the RV parks are full with long-term residents. They call every few days to see if a spot has opened up. Come winter, the hose bringing them water from their friend’s house will freeze.

“It's still very stressful not knowing where we're going to be, where we're going to end up,” Enriquez said.

Despite her situation, Enriquez said she feels grateful that they've been able to stick around in the valley, where her friends, kids and grandchildren live. She says she can’t imagine being in a better and more supportive community during the pandemic. But she’s worried about the trends she’s noticing.

“It makes me concerned for everyone else that is going to come after us in this particular situation, trying to find somewhere to live, because there isn't anything. There isn't anything. I can't even say that enough,” she said.

Franklin, in Twin Falls, still drives north an hour and a half multiple times a week to teach dance and bring her kids to their father’s house. But she breathes more easily now that her family has moved away. They have a six-bedroom house on a cul-de-sac with a backyard, and she’s excited about getting to know the community there.


Correction: This article originally referred to a modular home as a mobile home.


Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen 


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