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How do you balance need for tourism and housing? Ketchum voters may decide just that.

Amanda Breen was elected to the Ketchum City Council in 2017.
City of Ketchum, Friedman Airport Facebook
Amanda Breen was elected to the Ketchum City Council in 2017.

With the increasing challenge of securing affordable housing in their community, are looking … well, up.

There’s something called the “1% for Air” local option tax, which traditionally funds air service and tourism efforts. But Ketchum officials would like to ask voters to split that LOT in half, with .5% still going to promote air travel, but earmarking the other .5% for affordable housing projects.

“It could raise about $1.5 million and a half for housing and $1.5 million for air service and marketing,” said Ketchum council member Amanda Breen. “Are both of these important to our community, our economy, and the people who live here? If so, I'm hopeful we can get that supermajority.”

That would be 66% of the vote this coming May if the council approves the ballot initiative in the coming weeks. Breen visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the proposal, and how the problem is mounting with every passing day.

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. Affordable housing. Yes, It's a conversation starter. Yes, it's a headline more often than not. But for too many Idahoans, it is reality that they have a difficult time finding affordable housing. We're going to talk a bit about that this morning with Amanda Breen, an attorney, advocate and a member of the Ketchum City Council. Amanda Breen, welcome back to the program.

AMANDA BREEN: Thank you, George. Happy to be here.

PRENTICE: You know this as well as anyone. We in the media think we know it pretty well. But I'm curious how you might best represent the challenge that your community is going through right now.

BREEN: Well, George, affordable housing has always been a challenge in Blaine County for decades, really. But particularly in the last few years, it has really reached crisis point based on some of the new residents we have who moved here for remote work during the COVID pandemic, as well as the skyrocketing real estate prices here. Affordable housing has become even more scarce. We see existing housing being torn down and then being rebuilt as second homes or condos. We have a lot of difficulty building new housing just because of the incredibly high price of real estate here. And we just have an extremely small inventory of any housing that's available whatsoever at any rent or mortgage rate or residence to live in.

PRENTICE: Is it a matter of being… well, for lack of a better word, creative? Indeed. You're a public official, but you're also a public official in Idaho, which sometimes doesn't make it too easy for local communities to do what they need to do. So, you need to be creative, don't you?

BREEN: We sure do. Here in Idaho, the local cities and counties are only allowed to use tools that the legislature grants us the power to use. So, because of that, our creativity is somewhat limited unless the legislature allows us to do it. One of the ways that the legislature has permitted us to try to raise money to address the housing problem is through our local option tax.

PRENTICE: So, let's talk about that. There is a proposal on the table that you are considering to revise… a local option tax to put it before voters. I know last year the majority of voters said yes to that initiative, but it wasn't a supermajority. So how can you best represent what you want to put before voters this year?

BREEN: So, we have a local option tax that is specifically dedicated towards air service and marketing and tourism. It's called the “1% for Air”. It needs to be re-approved by the voters every few years. And what we are proposing is to split that 1% - one half percent will continue to go towards air service, which is very important to our tourist-based economy and marketing. And the other half percent will go towards funding affordable housing initiatives.

PRENTICE: Do you have any numbers of how much that could raise?

BREEN: It could raise about a million and a half dollars for housing and then a million and a half or to continuing to go towards air service and marketing. So, air service and marketing will be decreased from what it receives now and housing will luckily now we will be able to have about a million and a half dollars to put towards affordable housing.

PRENTICE: How did you get here? It's an interesting marriage. I never would have put marketing and air service next to housing programs.

BREEN: Well, we knew that this air service and marketing tax needed to come up for approval. But we've also heard from the community that we have a lot of tourists here. We sure do. We've really felt that in the past few years. And how much more do we need to fund that? And so we wanted to listen to the community and say, well, while we are a tourist based economy and tourists themselves generate the large majority of that local option sales tax, we also want to redirect the money towards one of the problems that is caused by tourism and a lot of tourism, which is a lack of affordable housing. So that's how we got to this proposal of splitting it and continuing to recognize our tourist economy, but also now being able to use funds directly towards affordable housing.

PRENTICE: I'm thinking back to your first remark about the influx of new folks who have come into the community.

BREEN: Well, we did have an influx of service workers. We always do, especially seasonally. But actually, a lot of the new residents that came here to live full time came here because they could work remotely. There may be working tech jobs or professional jobs anywhere else in the country. And they realized that they could come here and live a nice lifestyle and enjoy everything we have to offer here while still working for their companies back in Seattle or San Francisco or wherever they came from. And so that's created an additional pressure on top of the service employees that we generally always receive.

PRENTICE: So, do I have this right - a second reading of the ordinance was in early February?

BREEN: Correct. We had our first reading last week and then the second and third readings will be in February. And then our plan is to have it on the May ballot.

PRENTICE: How do you read the tea leaves on this? You've talked about listening to the community and getting a lot of feedback on this, so you must have some confidence that this could get a supermajority.

BREEN: Yes, the tea leaves are sometimes difficult to read, but we're very fortunate to have a very involved and vocal community here. And so we hear from so many residents and business owners constantly and we hear their calls for housing, for their employees and for their families. We also, like I mentioned before here, the concerns of some people that we do not want to become over tourists. We think that by structuring it this way, where we decrease the funding to tourism while well, creating funding for housing is a good way to put it to the voters and have them decide, Are both of these important to our community, our economy, and the people who live here? And if so, I'm sure hopeful we can get that supermajority.

PRENTICE: How do you get the tourism sector on board to help you advocate for this?

BREEN: Lots of outreach. They're very involved as well. And the tourism sector, while they are obviously dependent on tourism for their businesses. They also are desperately feeling the need for housing for their workers. We have hotels, ski shops, restaurants, even non tourist businesses like dental offices who just cannot find employees anywhere because there is nowhere to live. So we see really strong support for both the housing and the tourism initiatives in our tourists based economy.

PRENTICE: We'll keep a really close watch on this. In the meantime, she is Amanda Breen, member of the Ketchum City Council. And and for this morning, thanks for giving us some time.

BREEN: Thank you, George.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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