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Wood River Valley Grapples With Pandemic Growth As Workers Say Affordable Housing Is Urgent

Rachel Cohen
Boise State Public Radio

As people flocked to mountain towns like Sun Valley during the pandemic, local tourism and economic development leaders wondered who these newcomers were, where they were coming from and whether they’d stay.

On Wednesday, those experts presented data showing some preliminary trends.

Residential sales in Blaine County were up in 2020 compared to 2019, and virtually all that growth was in houses that sold for half a million dollars or more. There was a 250% increase in the number of homes sold that were valued at over $3 million in 2020, according to data from Sun Valley Economic Development.

“We all know real estate is off the hook,” said David Patrie, the outreach director for Sun Valley Economic Development, who presented at the event hosted by Visit Sun Valley.

“For the most part, it’s telling us this is the upper income folks, and, at least the ones that are planning to stay, are moving from all over the country, with a focus on California and Washington.”

Based on homeowners' exemptions, SVED believes only about 20% of new buyers intend to use their purchases as primary residences. With that data and new voter registration numbers, the economic development organization estimates the county gained about five years' worth of new residents in 16 months.

“So, yeah, it’s a lot, it feels like a lot and that’s what we’re all feeling,” Patrie said.

A few virtual audience members asked about the flip-side to the fast growth: How many workers left during the pandemic due to a lack of affordable housing?

Patrie said there’s not good data on that, for now.

A recent opinion article by Nathan Harvill, the executive director of the Blaine County Housing Authority, provided some clues.

“We currently have over 250 local households on our waiting list with few housing options to offer,” Harvill wrote in the Idaho Mountain Express this week.

During the Wednesday tourism presentation, Visit Sun Valley briefly mentioned housing challenges and a workforce shortage as some concerns it has for the upcoming summer season.

But at an impassioned Ketchum Planning and Zoning Commission meeting the night before, the pleas from local workers about the housing situation struck more of an urgent tone.

“It’s not sustainable,” said Reid Stillman, a Ketchum resident, during public comment.

“Businesses are going to be gone, and you guys are going to regret having these conversations when businesses are shut down because there’s no one to work at them. We need something now.”

The meeting was the first before the city regarding a long-anticipated affordable housing project on the grounds of the soon-to-be-former city hall building. If approved, the project, which has received some ardent opposition, wouldn’t be ready for renters until next year at the earliest.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio

I cover environmental issues, outdoor recreation and local news for Boise State Public Radio. Beyond reporting, I contribute to the station’s digital strategy efforts and enjoy thinking about how our work can best reach and serve our audience. The best part of my job is that I get to learn something new almost every day.

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