BCHA tackles affordable housing

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SANDPOINT — Affordable housing is hard to come by in Bonner County, which is why the Bonner Community Housing Agency is working on solutions to the problem.

"The housing issues here have been kind of exacerbated because we live in a beautiful area — location, location, location," said Chris Bassett, BCHA executive director, during Thursday's Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

Affordable housing is based on income and family size in regard to the overall income of the community, which varies by location. In Bonner County, the area median income for a family of four, for example, is $45,600, Bassett said. For a single person, the area median income is $31,950. Based on average monthly earnings of 2016 data, Bassett said an affordable single-family home would be $156,515. The median home value in Bonner County, however, is $212,000. That is a difference of $66,000, Bassett said, between what is affordable and what is available.

Over the past four years, BCHA has developed 17 single-family homes for those making less than 80 percents of the area median, allowing several families to own their own home who otherwise could not afford it, Bassett said. BCHA is also working with Bonner Homeless Transitions to turn four homes at the Trestle Creek Friendship Center into affordable rentals for single families.

One thing BCHA is focusing on is working with employers to assist in affordable housing, Bassett said. One thing employers can do to assist with affordable housing is to pay for homebuyer education classes for their employees, he said. BCHA hosts a monthly class that teaches people everything about buying a house, Bassett said, from budgeting to closing and mortgages. Employers can also provide down payment and closing cost assistance, he said, which can be "very helpful" especially if an employer is recruiting someone into town.

Bassett said another option is that employers could get together and start community land trusts to build houses to sell to employees at "tremendous" monthly cost savings. 

"When we do that, we are then able to resell, not rent, but sell the home without the cost of the land and fees and infrastructure in the process of the resale," Bassett said. "That does require that we restrict how much you can resell the house for."

Because a land trust is a private entity, the homes on a land trust can be restricted to specific populations, Bassett said. If the school district started a land trust, for example, they could then restrict the housing to teachers only if they chose to do so. Or if two companies got together and started a land trust, they could restrict it to employees of the two companies.

"You can set whatever boundaries you wanted to set on the land trust," Bassett said. "This gives you tremendous flexibility to meet the populations that need the help."

If at anytime the homeowner decides to sell, the land trust has the option to buy it back, or it can be sold on the open market, Bassett said. A land trust is operated by a board of directors that includes some homeowners, he said, giving the homeowners a say in what the land trust does. There are some requirements, such as it must be the homeowner's primary residence, so they are not allowed to rent it out. If the homeowner wants to add a room or a shop, it has to be approved by everyone in the community as it could affect the value of their homes as well.

As for savings to homeowners in a land trust, Bassett said a home that would typically cost $250,000 would sell for $180,000, which can make a "huge" difference in a mortgage payment. The resale value of the home would remain below market value for as long as it is in the land trust, keeping the home affordable "forever," he said.

Land trusts have been developed in other communities, such as Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Sun Valley, Idaho, he said. In Sun Valley, Bassett said 30 buses a day bring employees in from neighboring towns. Quest Aircraft Company buses in 10 people a day, he said, because the employees can't afford to live in Sandpoint.

"So this is a reality that we are going to have to deal with in this community," Bassett said. "I'm always hopeful, I'm always positive, and I am always optimistic that because we care about this community, we'll come up with healthy solutions to help people who want to live here ... If I know anything about this area, when there is a need, we come together."

Housing issues and solutions will again be a topic of discussion on Nov. 1 during the "What's Happening Up North" collaborative workshop, hosted by the Bonner County Economic Development Corporation. For information or to register, visit whatshappeningupnorth.org.

Mary Malone can be reached by email at mmalone@bonnercountydailybee.com and follow her on Twitter @MaryDailyBee.

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