Where are all the workers?
How demographics, COVID-19 and housing prices have helped shrink the local labor pool
By Zach Hagadone Reader Staff
This article is the introductory piece in an ongoing series during which the Reader will examine various aspects of the labor shortage affecting area employers. When the state entered Stage 4 of its Idaho Rebounds COVID-19 reopening plan in May, businesses threw open their doors, events and gatherings that had been waylaid over the previous year went back on the calendar, families busily planned for long delayed vacations and those who had received both doses of the coronavirus vaccine in the spring happily threw away their masks. Amid the optimism for the return of a “normal” summer came a harsh reminder that not all was “normal.” Employers ranging from restaurateurs to retailers to manufacturers found themselves unable to attract — or even retain — enough labor force to offer their previous levels of service, let alone keep those doors open on a consistent basis. From across the national, state and local economies came a similar question: “Where are all the workers?” The answer to that question locally lies in both the longand short-term trends at play in North Idaho, which revolve around three broad factors: demographics, the effects of the ongoing — and worsening — COVID-19 pandemic and the affordability of housing. Of first importance, however, is grasping the extent of the problem. ‘All the employers are feeling the same thing’ Clyde Montgomery has been in the temp-to-hire business since 1989, helping connect employers with job seekers in North Idaho through Coeur d’Alene10 /
/ September 16, 2021
based Integrated Personnel, Inc. With offices in both Kootenai and Bonner counties, the company works in all five northern counties and can fill positions in both eastern Washington and western Montana. He said the current job vacancies in the region are “close to triple” the typical number. “We’ve seen an uptick in possible new clients, which would be employers coming to us and they’re looking for employees, but for the most part we’ve had to turn them away because we have more than 300 openings that we have to fill with our existing clients,” said Montgomery, who serves as vice president of the company, which is owned by his now-retired father-in-law. “I’d just be wasting their time. There’s way more jobs than there are people now. … All the employers are feeling the same thing.” According to data from the Idaho Department of Labor, the civilian labor force in the five northern counties of Benewah, Bonner, Boundary, Kootenai and Shoshone comprises 117,989 workers, as of July 2021. The regional unemployment rate is 3.8% — the highest in the state, which has recorded 3% joblessness since July — though still far lower than the national rate of 5.2%, reported in August. Meanwhile, Idaho has added more jobs to its economy over the past year than any other state in the country and, alongside Utah, the only state in which nonfarm payroll employment actually increased from the beginning of the pandemic shutdowns in March 2020 and March 2021. In other words, according to an article published in July by late-Labor Department Regional Economist Kathryn Tacke, “Idaho’s good fortune is one reason for the labor shortages. Its economy has proven hardy during the pandemic …,” yet, “While jobs have grown since the pandem-
ic’s start, some Idahoans left the labor force.” That said, the labor force in the northern region increased from 115,524 in July 2020 — when unemployment was 6.9% — to 117,989 in July 2021. That’s an additional 2,465 workers, which boosted the total number of employed laborers in the five northern counties by nearly 6,000 year over year, bringing unemployment down to the current 3.8%. Those job gains haven’t been distributed evenly across the region, however. In Bonner County — which has a civilian labor force of 20,852, representing 17.6% of the regional whole — unemployment is 4.2%, as of July 2021. Labor Department data shows that Bonner County lost workers year over year, falling from 21,440 in July 2020 to its current number. That’s a reduction of 588 over the 12-month period, which doesn’t seem like much, but during the same time total employment rose by 74 workers — meaning that, in Bonner County at least, there are numerically fewer workers but more of them are working than a year ago. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher, considering that as the county’s
labor pool has shrunk, its population has increased. The recent U.S. Census data, covering the 10-year period from 2010 to 2020, showed that Bonner County grew by 15.2% for a total population of 47,110 — and that doesn’t include the new residents who have continued to flood into the area since over the past year. Sandpoint City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton told the City Council in August that Sandpoint’s population grew 17.3% over the decade to 8,639, but, “We believe these [numbers] are lower than what we’re all experiencing, feeling and seeing. We’re looking at data based on the surveys and door-to-door surveys that were completed well over a year ago … What we’ve seen is that it feels like we’re at that 17.3% growth just from last year to this year.” So what gives? Shouldn’t a bigger population equal more workers? Retirees, Zoomers and COVID collide Part of the conundrum facing Sandpoint, and Bonner County as a whole, is demographics and the changing nature of work stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. While the median
One of the many help wanted signs that seem to be everywhere now. Courtesy photo.
statewide age is 40, regionally it’s 45 and in Bonner County it’s 47.9. Only 20% of Bonner County residents are under the age of 18 (compared to 25.7% statewide) and 23.8% are 65 and older (statewide that figure is 15.4%). “Historically we’ve leaned more toward the retirement age of residents,” said Ryan Robinson, interim executive director of the Bonner County Economic Development Corporation, meaning that many of those who live here do so not to work but to enjoy its amenities. Meanwhile, the pandemic “accelerated that dream of moving to a place as beautiful as it is here,” he said. That’s a trend that has been felt nationwide. According to data cited by AARP, about 2 million “older workers” opted to drop out of the labor force altogether since spring 2020 and more than a quarter of all workers said that COVID-19 has spurred them to plan for an earlier retirement. As Tacke, with the Idaho Department of Labor wrote, “the number of Idahoans 55 years or older in the state’s labor force
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< WORKERS, con’t’ from Page 10 > fell 11%” from March 2020 to March 2021, due in part to a combination of fear of COVID-19 exposure and early retirement. During that time, more than 16,500 Idahoans applied earlier than expected for Social Security benefits because of the pandemic, Tacke wrote, citing a Census Bureau survey conducted in March. Meanwhile, that has caused a ripple effect as many other, younger, workers dropped out of the labor force to care for non-working elderly relatives. “There are more people reaching retirement age than there are youth to replace them,” Tacke added. “Despite Idaho’s rapid population growth and relatively youthful demographics, the number of teens entering the labor force has grown much more slowly than the number of people entering their retirement years.” Robinson echoed that, pointing out that Bonner County has always had a hard time keeping its kids at home. “All these high-school-age kids are fleeing the area and not coming back,” he said, pointing not only to the inability to secure affordable housing, but the lack of local post-graduation education and training opportunities. “There are not a lot of opportunities for high-school kids to go to trade school and then come back,” Robinson said. “By that time they’ve decided to live somewhere else due to the cost of living.” That, in turn, hollows out the available labor pool for lower-wage sectors such as the service and hospitality industries, which, in Bonner County, make up the fourth-largest employment area (nearly tied with manufacturing, which is ranked third) but its lowest paid. Department of Labor statistics show that the average wage for leisure and hospitality workers in Bonner County is $20,020 — $1,083 lower than the regional rate. Anecdotal evidence for the pressure placed on the leisure and hospitality sector is made clear by signs posted on restaurant doors apologizing for reduced hours and menus, even abrupt midweek closures, due to lack of staffing. But the reason for the imbalance between population and labor pool also has to do with the surge in remote workers relocating to the area. The so-called “Zoom economy” has quickly come to typify the workplace in many sectors, enabling employees specifically in technology and information-based jobs to ditch larger cities and relocate to rural areas where their salaries can afford them a higher quality of life for relatively less cost. This phenomenon has been widely reported, especially as it affects resort communities in the West, but it’s worth
population, Kootenai County is expenoting that when addressing the “workriencing the greatest need for skilled er shortage,” these workers don’t count workers, though Montgomery estimated when tallying up the local labor pool. that about 33% of the total vacancies that Even though remote workers may be he’s trying to fill are in Bonner County, living and working in a community, they aren’t technically employed there — their numbering about 100 openings. “I’ve had work orders before where work product is being exported to create they say, ‘Send me 100 workers,’ and profit elsewhere, while their wages are others are open-ended: ‘Keep sending me imported and leveraged to demand local people,’” he said. services. Ideally that results in a “trickRobinson, at the Bonner County Ecole-down” effect, with their spending spurnomic Development Corporation, noted ring economic growth, but just as often that Bonner County has long struggled creates inflation in critical areas such as with skilled labor. housing prices. “You have peo“You have people coming in here, not A concerted effort in the first decade ple coming in here, contributing to the labor pool, working of the century to not contributing remotely or working out of the area attract manufacturto the labor pool, ing firms has been working remotely and making out-of-area wages, yet successful enough or working out of to raise that sector the area and making demanding services that can’t be met because of a lack of workers in those to the third-highest out-of-area wages, yet demanding lower-wage sectors because they can’t employment area in the county — services that can’t afford housing.” centered in large be met because of a — Ryan Robinson part on aeronaulack of workers in those lower-wage Interim executive director of the Bonner tics and firms like sectors because Co. Economic Development Corporation. Encoder Products and Litehouse they can’t afford Foods — but it still housing,” Robinson hasn’t overcome the housing hurdle, even said. “None of these issues are new issues though those wages pay better here than for Bonner County — they’re just magnielsewhere in the region. fied because of the situation we’re in.” “I’ve had a number of conversations The housing crunch and ‘the perfect with employers who have higher-end jobs open — $80,000-plus — they offer the storm’ position to someone out of town, they The income disparity between local accept and as they look at the housing workers and those making an out-of-area prices they back out,” Robinson said. “Eiwage — and its inflationary effect on ther that or they go back to their current housing prices — is a big factor in what employer, bargain for a higher wage and Montgomery has also been seeing with end up staying.” regional employers’ difficulty with findThat trend has also affected the ability ing labor. And it’s not just in the service of health care providers, as well as eduand retail sectors. Integrated Personnel cational institutions, to attract workers, doesn’t even work primarily with those employers, focusing more on manufactur- which while combined make up the second-largest number of employees in the ing and timber, in particular. county pay an average wage of $38,507, Those sectors pay much higher wages according to the Department of Labor. than most other industries in the area: Skyrocketing housing prices have been regionally, manufacturing jobs pay an a constant source of both national headaverage salary of $50,928 and, in Bonner lines and local conversations for more County, it’s $52,539. than a year, with the median list price for Still, Montgomery said, “The housing a home in Sandpoint rapidly increasing to market has a lot to do with it. We do a lot somewhere in the $500,000 to $600,000 of blue-collar, and the blue-collar worker is getting kind of priced out of this area. range over the past year alone, depending “I’ve seen that happen with some of on the source. Meanwhile, the area medithe employees we’ve hired; they move an income is about $60,000 per year. here, they can’t afford to live here and “We’ve been slow to react on prethey have to move back,” he added. vailing wages but you’re starting to see Meanwhile, Montgomery said his employers react to that,” Robinson said, clients are raising wages, offering benefits referring to the types of attraction and sooner, providing incentive pay on attenretention strategies described by Montdance and sign-on bonuses — “anything gomery. “That’s going to help.” they can think of to entice employees.” What else would help, he added, is Unsurprisingly, given its much larger supporting more local professional-tech-
nical training to provide opportunities for younger people to stay home and contribute to the economy as skilled workers. Again and again, however, one of the fundamental factors fueling the worker shortage is the lack of affordable housing pushing out not only workers in traditionally lower-wage sectors but affecting those employees who even in the recent past would have been considered moderate- to high-wage earners. “The labor shortage and housing issue has always been here, it’s just been magnified because of the perfect storm of COVID, housing prices and people moving out to seek lower cost of living and higher wages,” Robinson said, “and we as economic development people can’t fix it — the market has to fix it or private industry has to put a Band-Aid on it by providing work force housing to get us through it.” Pick up the Sept. 23 edition of the Reader for the second part in this series, which will specifically look at housing costs as a factor in the local worker shortage. If you have a story of how the worker shortage and/or housing affordability has affected you or your business, share it with us at email@example.com.
September 16, 2021 /
Where are all the workers? Part II Lack of affordable housing fuels local worker shortage By Zach Hagadone and Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey Reader Staff
This article is the second piece in an ongoing series during which the Reader will examine various aspects of the labor shortage affecting area employers. If area workers — especially in the service industries — seem a little anxious, stressed out or otherwise stretched thin, it’s because they are. After more than 18 months of COVID-19 pandemic life, the American workplace has undergone profound changes, with an emphasis for some on remote work and others thrown into the jaws of the virus with essential in-person positions in the realms of health care, education, and delivering food to both diners’ tables and shoppers’ grocery carts. From across the economy employers cry out that they can’t find workers. The reasons for the labor shortage are many — from an aging workforce prompted to retire early by COVID to the virus itself, disrupting career paths, altering plans and, simply, killing people. In Sandpoint and Bonner County at large, the worker shortage is rooted in the basic fact that there simply aren’t as many workers here as there used to be — the community’s labor pool shrank from 2020 to 2021 even as the population grew. That’s because a lot of the newcomers aren’t here to work but retire, in many cases, or work remotely for out-of-area companies. Both groups — retirees and remote workers — bring with them much higher wages than 12 /
/ September 23, 2021
are typical of Bonner County, which they used to purchase property and extremely inflated prices. There is no mathematical way that a local worker, earning the area median income of about $60,000, which is a generous estimate, can compete in a hyper-inflated housing market where list prices frequently spin off into the $600,000 range and rentals run into the region of $2,000 per month and more — the kinds of prices Sandpointinans used to to scoff at when transplants reported them in places like Portland, Seattle and San Francisco. Workers and their employers (that is, workers and employers who are actually based in Bonner County) are stuck in a crunch: there aren’t as many available laborers because they can’t afford to live here, and they can’t afford to live here because they make too little money to compete with the influx of big city cash flowing into the community from Zoomers, retirees and all the others who have decided for various reasons that Bonner County is the last best place. Sensing the short-term emergency, employers themselves have stepped in to make sure their workers at least have shelter. Whether that’s a reasonable long-term solution remains to be seen. Business owners as landlords Justin Dick has taken matters into his own hands. The owner of Trinity at City Beach has invested both his time and money into efforts to keep roofs over his employees’ heads — and not just in recent months. “The restaurant industry, historically, since I’ve been
up here, has done things for housing for our employees,” he said, noting that he and his wife relocated to Sandpoint from Denver in 2006. “I’ve put people up in campers, loaned them money to buy fifth wheels,” he said, also noting a condo on Olive Street he rented to employees for about a decade. Recently, a Trinity regular offered to hold onto a soon-to-expire lease at Condo Del Sol, which the restaurateur now sublets to his workers. Each agreement varies, but the housing is often tied to the renting employee’s compensation. Like Dick, results from a July 2021 Sandpoint Workforce Housing survey show that many business owners are having to get creative to keep workers around. When asked in the survey to “provide details about steps you have taken to address workforce housing needs,” respondents shared varying methods — and varying degrees of success — in
securing employee housing. One business owner said they have helped with down payments to buy and deposits to rent. Another said they use their own personal and professional networks — rather than real estate agencies or other services — when trying to find workforce housing, hoping to find available housing through private sources. In some instances, community members come forward with rental opportunities not listed on the market. Some are attempting to raise wages, but in many cases, that method isn’t sustainable. One employer wrote: “Paid for temporary stays in hotels while waiting for their housing to come open. I’ve paid employee deposits. I’ve paid employee rent when they aren’t able to afford it. I’ve paid electric bills, etc. I pay it out of my pocket personally — I don’t ever expect compensation from the employee.” A common theme throughout the survey is a growing
Trinity owner Justin Dick is one local employer who has been providing housing for his employees. Photo by Ben Olson.
effort among business owners to be the name on the deed; however, even those signing the checks are not always able to front today’s prices. One employer tried to buy a house for rental but “the prices were outrageously high and I couldn’t make it work.” Some shared that they have been able to secure homes and apartments for employees and, thanks to the current climate, it appears Sandpoint’s bossmeets-landlord is here to stay. Dick is frank about the challenges that come with that balance, admitting that the process is “going to be a lot of trial by fire.” The trust required in a boss-employee relationship is doubled as the landlord-tenant relationship becomes a growing necessity. “We’ve been hiring anybody who can fog up a mirror and has a pulse at this point in time,” Dick said. “That’s worked out about half the time,
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< WORKERS, con’t from Page 12 > the other half of the time it bites you when you need them and they don’t show up.” Another survey respondent, a landscaping service, shared that they’ve found some affordable rentals, “but that puts our employees living in Noxon, Mont., Clark Fork and south of Cocolalla.” Dick is of the opinion that “industry heads” — those attempting to keep workers on their payrolls — are the ones who will produce the “true, novel innovations” to solve the housing issue in Sandpoint. “One thing that is gravely apparent is we need to stop looking toward our government to fix things,” Dick said. The task [force] at hand One thing most stakeholders seem to agree on is that it’s going to take collaboration between government and the “industry heads” to which Dick referred to create structural change in the local housing market. Ryan Robinson, who serves as the interim executive director of the Bonner County Economic Development Corporation, told the Reader that a symposium on workforce housing had been scheduled for October but has been pushed to March 2022. Meanwhile, he pointed to Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad’s workforce housing task force, which in August met for the first time. Speaking of housing affordability, Robinson said, “We’ve kind of danced around it,” but, “We’re finally to the point where we’re getting all the players in the room.” That means bankers, those who work in finance, county and city officials, leaders in the construction industry and others, collaborating “to break down some of these barriers” to affordability, Robinson said. “It’s going to be a long marathon,” Rognstad told the Reader in August, referring to the advisory task force. “It’s
an active group, it’s an engaged group. These are doers. There’s a lot of interest around this right now and I think that already we’re seeing some action.” But that action has been a long time coming. As both Rognstad and Robinson said, the gap between prevailing local wages and the cost of housing isn’t new. “We’ve been talking about housing for a long time. When we were writing the Comprehensive Plan in 2009 we were talking about this. Certainly we were talking about this five years ago when housing was 282% cheaper than it is now. Who would have thought in 2016 that it would be almost three times the cost five years later?” Rognstad said. “We’ve been seeing this coming and the difference is now that it does feel like a crisis and I think you have people really motivated to do something about it,” he added. “When you get major employers in the community who see this as a life or death situation for the future of their organization, it starts getting people engaged in the issue and starts getting resources brought to the table. … [And] I think it’s going to happen faster than what you see from typical government work. We can start to see results in one to three years.” A consistent theme among developers and local government officials alike has been that lack of housing inventory is the real culprit behind the staggering increase in both sale and rental prices. A number of subdivisions, both big and small, have been working through the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission and City Council, while City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton told the Reader in a recent interview that there are somewhere around 900 developments of various sizes in the planning pipeline. “Moving some of these developments along will help increase that supply,” Staple-
ton said, though added that side of the area. the rental market is of more “We’ve made several offers, immediate importance to work- and once they realize what ers, rather than single-family the cost of living is, they can’t homes — however, that’s what accept,” he said. developers want to build most According to Idaho Departbecause ment of Lathey’re bor statistics, “We’ve been hiring far and “public adaway anybody who can fog up a ministration” more luemploys 917 mirror and has a pulse at crative, individuals in especialBonner Counthis point in time.” ly at the ty, paying an current average wage -Justin Dick sky-high $49,934 Owner, Trinity at City Beach of market and ranked prices. the sixth-largSandpoint Planning and est employment sector after Zoning Commission Chairman construction. Jason Welker, who is running Connolly said that in collabfor City Council in the Tuesorative meetings with all of the day, Nov. 2 election, has drawn local municipalities, finding a a critical bead on so-called way to fix the housing issue has “workforce housing” that is become “one of the foremost priced out of reach of the very conversations.” workers developers claim to be Indeed, the affordability serving. crisis is a county-wide issue — “Let’s be clear, home not just because of overall marprices are not determined by ket prices, but because a large the cost of construction of the portion of the workforce often home; they are determined by referred to as “Sandpoint’s market demand and supply,” workers” doesn’t even live in Welker told the Reader in an the city. Based on 2018 numemail. “Case in point, recent bers, the Labor Department single-family home subdivireported that 2,707 individuals sions in Sandpoint, in which who work in Bonner County live in Sandpoint, yet 5,192 newly built homes were listed people live somewhere else for $300,000 two years ago, in the county but commute to are now selling newly finished homes for over $500,000. This Sandpoint for work. There are even more workers who live in reflects not the higher material the county but work elsewhere, cost, but the higher demand. numbering 6,485. Nearly all of that additional Connolly noted the ev$200,000 goes to the developer-more-popular concept of er’s bottom line, e.g. profit.” employee housing opportunities being “in the hands of the The county conundrum employers.” Bonner County Commis“But boy, that’s not a great sioner Jeff Connolly said model at all,” he added. discussions about the lack of Commissioner Dan McDonworkforce-friendly housing ald told the Reader that he is have been happening at the on Rognstad’s task force. county level “for the last cou“Other than that, the counple years,” but that he’s unty can do little other than to aware of any “specific plans.” pave the way for the private “We want to lend a hand, sector to create more housing and however that looks, we’re inventory,” McDonald wrote not sure,” Connolly told the in an email. “We have made Reader. the permitting process simple, Housing prices have also easy and affordable but we directly affected the county’s have limitations in the county ability to hire talent from out-
that you don’t have within the cities, mainly, sewer and water. That will always be the limiting factor in more rural areas of the county.” ‘Look in the mirror’ According to Rob Hart, director of the Bonner Community Housing Agency, attempts by the city and county to solve the affordability crisis are completely separate from what he and his agency are working to implement, which is focused on the question: “What can ordinary people do to help solve this problem?” Hart’s step-by-step plan for getting North Idaho roofs over the heads of “local employees, seniors and the disabled” focuses on the roles of those with control over homes and tracts of land — sellers, developers and builders — and their individual responsibility to choose what the future of the community will look like. “We all need to look in the mirror, here,” Hart said. “We’re causing the problem. Everybody who is selling homes is part of the problem, and if just occasionally they could sell them to a local employee, or senior or [the] disabled, then that’s going to go a long way to solving the problem.” But where is the money in making those choices? Bonner Community Housing Agency is working with interested landowners and developers to prove that “it is possible to make money” building homes for the local workforce, Hart said, and for everyone else being priced out of the panhandle. Pick up the Sept. 30 edition of the Reader for the third part in this series, which will examine some of the solutions to the housing crisis coming from both state and local entities. If you have a story of how the worker shortage and/or housing affordability has affected you or your business, share it with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. September 23, 2021 /
Where are all the workers? Part III A homegrown solution to affordable workforce housing
By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey and Zach Hagadone Reader Staff This article is the third piece in an ongoing series during which the Reader will examine various aspects of the labor shortage affecting area employers. By now the connection between affordable housing and the shortage of workers in cities throughout the country — and particularly the West — has been made clear. Policymakers, analysts and economists, realtors and developers, business owners, workers and everyone in between can point to all manner of statistics and anecdotes to illustrate the simple fact: workers can’t work if they can’t afford to live where they work. There are other factors in the mix, of course, but a lack of so-called “workforce housing” has been underscored again and again as a particularly onerous obstacle for employers to overcome in finding and retaining people to fill vacant jobs in industries ranging from manufacturing to health care to education and the broad swathe of services that encompass leisure, food service and hospitality. In an ongoing series of articles about the worker shortage, with installments published Sept. 16 and Sept. 23 and available at sandpointreader.com, the Reader has spoken with a range of stakeholders and experts and dug into regional data to explore some of the trends at work fueling the lack of workers that employers across the economic spectrum have felt in 14 /
/ September 30, 2021
their day-to-day operations. In the first part, Idaho Department of Labor figures showed that unemployment in the North Idaho region is 3.8%, which, while the highest in the state, is still significantly below the 5.2% national jobless rate. Meanwhile, in Bonner County that number is 4.2%. Reasons for that are varied, but circle around affordability. As the population has boomed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with many thousands of newcomers flocking to Bonner County in search of rural quality of life — and its lower cost of living relative to urban centers — they have imported salaries far higher than North Idaho’s historically low pay. Compound that influx of people and capital with the fact that many of them are working remotely for businesses located elsewhere, and it has caused a sudden, severe downward crunch on lower-wage workers. Put simply, even a manufacturing worker making something in the vicinity of the area median income of $60,000 or so can’t compete with the buying power of a transplanted worker earning twice or more when purchasing a home. For a leisure and hospitality industry worker (the fourth largest employment sector in the county behind manufacturing, making an average wage of about $20,000), even rental housing, which frequently rises into the $2,000-per-month range, even for single-bedroom or studio units, is out of reach. At the same time, the region has been flooded with retirees — either from out of the area or locally and opting for early retirement as the COVID-19 pandemic continues — who
also bring with them large amounts of capital with which to invest in housing at prices far above the means of local workers.
As a result of all these factors, Bonner County’s labor force actually shrank from July 2020 to July 2021, according to
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Rob Hart, the executive director of the Bonner Community Housing Agency, stands before a home in Sandpoint modeled after historic homes in South Sandpoint. Photo by Ben Olson.
< WORKERS, con’t from Page 14 > the Labor Department — what one economic development expert described as “the perfect storm of COVID, housing prices and people moving out to seek lower cost of living and higher wages.” In the second part, the Reader talked with others who are addressing the housing affordability crisis, sketching in broad strokes just how dire the situation is for local workers. One solution has been for local business owners to take matters into their own hands and supply housing to the workers by buying properties and making them available as rentals. Another, expressed by county officials, is to ease the way for development to occur, thus expanding the inventory and lowering prices. One housing expert proposes another path, which puts the onus for solving the affordability crisis on owners and sellers, rather than government or employers. Where income meets outcomes Rob Hart has been busy. The executive director of the Bonner Community Housing Agency has experienced no shortage of media attention in recent months, as the agency’s efforts to tackle North Idaho’s housing affordability crisis have garnered coverage in both local and regional publications. According to Hart, collaborations with local landowners, developers and employers are starting to bear fruit — that fruit being housing for local wage earners, who have steadily been priced out of Sandpoint in recent years. “We’re kind of catching our breath now,” Hart told the Reader. Hart and BCHA grabbed the spotlight earlier this summer, when plans went public for a 49-unit development in Sandpoint built exclusively to house people making 80-120% of the
area’s median income. That development, named Culver’s Crossing and owned by Sandpoint native Nancy Hadley, would be the first to participate in BCHA’s Income-Based Local Housing Program. According to Hart, similar projects are also in the works, meant to put roofs over the heads of North Idaho’s near-average earners. “We’re not talking about low-income housing here,” he said. “This is middle of the market.” BCHA, which covers Bonner and Boundary counties, is a state- and federally-funded housing entity under the Idaho Housing and Finance Association. While the various agencies across the state are traditionally charged with building individual subsidized homes for low-income families, Hart said BCHA is “branching out” with its Income-Based Local Housing Program, attempting a broader approach to North Idaho’s housing woes. While BCHA has only enough funding to cover basic operating costs, the nonprofit is able to charge a fee when enrolling a landowner or developer in its programs. Also in the works are partnerships with some of North Idaho’s “larger employers,” Hart said, who want to build employee housing. In a July workforce housing survey conducted by the city of Sandpoint, employers repeatedly shared a desire to take housing into their own hands. However, employers often have difficulty footing today’s hefty home prices. “I tried to buy a house to use as a rental,” one employer shared in their survey responses. “The prices were outrageously high and I couldn’t make it work.” “I looked into purchasing a multi-room house four years ago when I started noticing an issue for employees to find housing but wasn’t in a financial position to make a purchase at the time,” another wrote. “I have attempted to
rent apartments through my the disabled who do not have restaurant specifically to house an annual income greater than employees but as of yet have half of the home price. been unsuccessful.” Step No. 3: Real estate That’s where BCHA comes agents and sellers, please try in. Hart said the agency is not to sell homes to investors currently and speculalooking for tors. Please land — an try to sell “There are hundreds of acre or to people right now in Sandpoint homes more — to local employbring these who are pre-qualified with ees, seniors employers’ the banks to buy homes. ... These and visions disabled who people are ready to buy. They do not have to life. Landown- never get a chance. ... So that’s an annual ers who income greatwhat I’m asking for: Just con- er than half “would like to be a sider a local, please, just one of the home part of the price. [time] out of 10.” solution, and make “This is money donot discrim — Rob Hart ing it” are The Executive Director of Bonner ination. invited to super wealthy reach out. Community Housing Agency are not a proHart tected class. said he’s I am not sugnot yet gesting that ready to name the employers people change their prices, just looking to take this approach, that they try occasionally — but that throughout the commu- just occasionally — not to sell nity, “there is great interest.” to investors and speculators,” “It is potentially big news,” Hart said, noting that “inveshe said. tors and speculators” include anyone purchasing housing for ‘Three easy steps’ profit, not as a residence. While landowners, contrac“If even 10% of sales tors and other players in the in Sandpoint in the next 12 housing game are invited to months follow this plan, we participate in the Income-Based can go a long way toward Local Housing Program, Hart solving the housing crisis,” he said the solution to Sandpoint’s added. affordability crisis doesn’t deThere’s no shortage of local pend exclusively on enrolling people looking to buy homes. Whether they get the chance, in the initiative. The solution, though, is another story. he shared with the Reader, is “There are hundreds of peoactually “three easy steps,” as ple right now in Sandpoint who follows in Hart’s own words: are pre-qualified with banks to buy homes,” he said, notStep No. 1: Landowners, please do not sell land to spec- ing that he knows of one bank with more than 100 qualified ulators and investors. Please applicants waiting to purchase try to sell land to developers housing. and builders who agree to “These people are pre-qualfollow step No. 2 or to local ified and ready to buy. They employees, seniors and the never get a chance,” he said. disabled. That’s because investors, Step No. 2: Developers and Hart said, are willing to pay the builders, please try not to sell exorbitant prices in cash. The homes to investors and speculators. Please try to sell homes solution, then, is for those with to local employees, seniors and the decision-making power
to make decisions that favor those who work and live in the panhandle. “So that’s what I’m asking for: Just consider a local, please, just one [time] out of 10,” Hart said. “That’s it. That’s the story.” And choosing to sell to the local employee, senior or disabled buyer doesn’t have to mean giving up all hopes of a profit. BCHA provides consulting to local developers to find ways to make the best of both worlds. Housing projects already underway could possibly qualify for a BCHA program, seeing as pricing up to $555,000 per home is currently allowed. “Local contractors can contact the agency, enroll a home or two in the program, and become a part of the solution while still making a profit,” Hart said. The bottom line? The Bonner Community Housing Agency wants to solve the area’s affordability crisis through collaboration. “We’re not looking for volunteers. We’re not looking for contributions. We’re not looking for gifts,” Hart said. “We’re looking for people who want to make money and help the community.” Hart brings a wealth of experience in architecture and development to his position at BCHA, as well as a passion for helping North Idaho keep its character. “I just hope I’m not too late,” he said. Pick up the Oct. 7 edition of the Reader for the fourth part in this series, which will look at how some other communities in the region have addressed the twin issues of lack of workforce and affordable housing. If you have a story of how the worker shortage and/or housing affordability has affected you or your business, share it with us at stories@sandpointreader. com. September 30, 2021 /
Where are all the workers? Part IV
Thinking regionally and planning locally for creative solutions to affordability
By Zach Hagadone Reader Staff
This article is the fourth installment in a series during which the Reader has examined various aspects of the labor shortage affecting area employers. For previous parts, visit sandpointreader.com. Headlines around the country carried a similar message Oct. 12, following the release of a new jobs report from the U.S. Department of Labor that afternoon: “U.S. Workers Quitting Their Jobs Hit a Record in August,” wrote The New York Times; “A record 4.3 million workers quit their jobs in August, led by food and retail industries,” CNBC reported; “A record number of workers are quitting their jobs, empowered by new leverage,” added The Washington Post. Taken together, those headlines touch on a number of the ground wires running through the nationwide question: “Where are all the workers?” Over the course of three articles, the Sandpoint Reader has spent the past month picking apart that question as it relates to the local economy. The answer is multi-faceted. As The Times pointed out Oct. 12, the worker shortage has much to do with the fact that people are simply dropping out of the workforce. The reasons for that are as varied as early retirement spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic to those who were laid off and can’t go back to work because they’re now required to stay home to care for children and/or elderly relatives. CNBC zeroed in on the most hard-hit sectors, including two of the traditionally lowest-paid — in Bonner County, those workers earn an average in the $20,000 to $25,000 per year range — and those workers may have left their jobs because their paltry pay isn’t sufficient to cover cost of living. They are either collecting unemployment or looking for higher-paid work, often pulling 16 /
/ October 14, 2021
up stakes for new communities with lower prices for essentials, especially housing. Meanwhile, as The Post pointed out, many have left their previous employment because they rightly realize that worker-strapped employers are now more willing than ever to negotiate much higher wages just to attract and retain employees. Frequently lost in the big numbers are the lived experiences of individuals who find themselves enmeshed in the interlocking pressures affecting employers and employees alike. In an email to the Reader, Nishelle Gonzales, who owns and operates both 7B Handyman & Contracting and 7B Clean, said she and her partner — along with their six children — rent a home for $2,200 a month, and she considers that “an extremely lucky amount to pay, considering the inflation in this area, and we have seen rental prices go for double that amount in the surrounding homes in our neighborhood.” Meanwhile, her businesses employ a combined total of three workers, but local demand is such that they could triple that amount — at least. “We have gone as far as to hire individuals out of the prison system, rehab, homelessness, and have begged for friends and family to move here and help us,” Gonzales wrote. “There lies the conundrum: Where would they live?” That dilemma surfaces over and over: prevailing wages, especially in rural communities like Bonner County, come nowhere near to covering the extreme prices for housing. Even in the case of Gonzales’s businesses, which pay from $20 to $40 per hour, “we still are unable to grow our employee bench.” Even worse, though she and her partner were able to secure another one-year lease on their rental, they’ve had to consider relocating away from Sandpoint — even out of Idaho — reconciling themselves to the realization that, “there is no adequate housing for
the middle class, so there is no one here to serve the droves of people coming from out of state. What will the long game look like? Will people continue to pay exorbitant prices when there is no industry to support the area and their demands for service?” As Gonzales pointed out, “Where there are no homes, there is no hope. There only seems to be a gaping hole where our middle class used to thrive. There has to be some legislative intervention that allows actual affordable housing to be built, and to have some wages increase — especially large corporations.” Gonzales also zeroed in on a critical issue often ignored or sidelined by proponents of the “build more houses” approach: “What percentage of homes in Bonner County sit empty as vacation rental income skyrockets, at the same time homelessness and displacement does?” “I believe legislative intervention is one of the ways we can create the Idaho that works best for all who live and work here,” she wrote. [Y]ou can bet that Idaho is selling its soul and disguising itself as a place of personal freedom and deregulation, and that
does not work for the people that live and work here. Our family is a living example of this.” No economist, labor analyst or development expert could have put it better: chronic low wages, especially in amenity-rich places like Sandpoint, have left workers vulnerable to an influx of cash-flush newcomers willing to pay astronomical prices for housing, thus pushing those workers (and ultimately their employers) further and further to the margins — in some cases, even out of their own communities. The most obvious solution is simply to construct more housing, but that approach, while increasing supply and ideally resulting in lower prices, is using a meat cleaver where a scalpel is needed. Perhaps a longer-term, more thoughtful approach is warranted, and that’s what a number of other regional communities, as well as planners, are trying to suss out. In essence, the solution may well be to plan smarter, rather than building bigger. The case of Ketchum Ketchum, and surrounding Blaine County, which includes the world-famous ski destination Sun Valley, can be considered the
In Ketchum (pictured above), city officials talked about, though ultimately abandoned, the idea of a “tent city” to help house workers. Photo courtesy Wikipedia. granddaddy of resort communities — certainly in Idaho, but also among the first rank in the western United States. Considering its long association with amenity migration, a host of iconic celebrities calling the county a home-awayfrom-home for more than 80 or so years, the Ketchum area is no stranger to the conflict between high housing costs and the lowwage labor necessary to maintain the infrastructure that makes it an attractive place to visit. That said, “it’s become amplified by COVID and migration to cities like Sandpoint and Ketchum — we’ve seen inventory of housing go down by 90%,” Ketchum Mayor Neil Bradshaw told the Reader. “That has led to pricing inflation in all categories.” At the same time, “we haven’t seen much wage inflation,” he said, “which has meant a shortage of laborers.” For instance, Bradshaw pointed to 100 help wanted ads in the local paper versus two “for-rent” ads.
< see WORKERS, Page 17 >
< WORKERS, con’t from Page 16 > “It’s a crisis, and it affects everyone,” he said, adding that “the heart and soul of the town has always been the people. … Sure we have the huge houses, well, now it’s less affordable because all of those smaller units have been bought up and lived in.” Ketchum made national headlines in June when city leaders considered establishing a “tent city” to house workers priced out of the housing market. While officials shelved the idea, Bradshaw said many workers are living short-term in RVs and finding other stop-gap measures. The midterm solution is to make it easier for long-term rentals in accessory dwelling units. One promising long-term solution is the Bluebird Village workforce housing development in downtown Ketchum. The Ketchum City Council approved the project Oct. 4, which calls for 51 deed-restricted apartments ranging from studios to three-bedroom units on cityowned land. Those units will only be available to those making between 50% and 70% of the area median income, which means between $50,000 and $60,000 per year. According to Boise State Public Radio, rents for a one-bedroom unit would range from $660 to $980 per month. It’s a big project and required a lot of heavy lifting for the city — planning went back three years, predating the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent explosion of in-migration of coastal urbanites to the Mountain West, and only became possible when the city and the project’s Seattle-based developer won a 9% low-income housing tax credit from the Idaho Housing Finance Association. While that’s a big win and a step in the right direction, Bradshaw said what’s really needed is some action by the Idaho Legislature to give cities more flexibility in regulating their housing markets. “The state Legislature allows us to decide our COVID response but doesn’t allow us to decide on our housing response,” he said. “In Idaho we do not have the tools in our housing toolbox to address our housing crisis.” Specifically, he referred to state legislation that frankly states: “Neither a county nor a city may
enact or enforce any ordinance that has the express or practical effect of prohibiting short-term rentals or vacation rentals in the county or city,” and, “Neither a county nor a city can regulate the operation of a short-term rental marketplace.” Short-term rentals are defined as housing that is rented for fewer than 30 days, which often equates to vacation housing. What’s left to municipalities, then, is regulation that “safeguard[s] the public health, safety and general welfare in order to protect the integrity of residential neighborhoods in which shortterm rentals or vacation rentals operate.” That establishes a vague band of available options, rooted in a number of interpretations that can often put neighbors at odds with one another while embroiling local officials in controversies that run block by block. When a host of statewide planning professionals, economic development experts, government representatives and other stakeholders met for a virtual meeting of the Idaho Chapter of the American Association of Planners from Oct. 6-8, that issue merited its own session, with many speakers echoing Bradshaw’s point about communities needing a freer hand, specifically when it comes to short-term rentals. “We need as many arrows in our quiver as we can get,” he said, “and our quiver is limited compared to most other states.” Long-term solutions for short-term rentals Aaron Qualls served the city of Sandpoint for many years, first as a Planning and Zoning commissioner, later on the City Council and, until December 2020, as city planner. He also serves as president of the Idaho Chapter of the American Planning Association. In that latter position, he presided over the recent statewide conference. In an interview with the Reader prior to the conference, he centered ordinances related to short-term rentals and accessory dwelling units as a more creative solution to the housing crisis than building more and more single-family homes — most, if not all, of which will ultimately sell for market prices that run from the low end in the $300,000 range to upwards of $700,000 and
$800,000, depending on their size regulations. and location. In broad strokes, the ordinance “There’s not a lot of incendifferentiates between owner tive among developers right now occupied and non-owner occupied to do anything other than big units. For the former there are no single-family homes,” he said. limitations, other than a permit “That’s just because of market and safety inspection. For the forces.” former there is Yet a limitation on “Where there are no homes, the the number of there is no hope. There only perceived permits to be seems to be a gaping hole where granted within supply-side our middle class used to thrive. residential housing and all There has to be some legislative zones crunch others must intervention that allows actual that is be put on a affecting waitlist. Neighaffordable housing to be built, so many must be and to have some wages increase bors workers notified of the — especially large corporations.” use and they could be managed, carry with if not them a slightly — Nishelle Gonzales somewhat fee. Local business owner higher mitigated, What’s more, with more non-owner aggressive approaches to how and occupied units are subject to an where short-term rentals and other inactivity clause, which stops uses are allowed. investor-owners and the like from For instance, he said, there is maintaining a unit without actually already a mechanism for collectrenting it out. ing a 7% bed tax on short-term Certain exemptions exist for rentals that is effective through waterfront development and those 2024 — that money, or a portion of units closer to downtown, with it, could be used to leverage grants the ordinance focused on neighfor supporting workforce housing borhoods. No limits are placed development. It could also be used on short-term residential rentals to fund infrastructure needed to in mixed-use commercial areas support that development. — other than a permit and safety inspection — but all non-owner “This is something that’s occupied units are required to already authorized; it would just have a local representative and take council action,” he said. It remit the 7% local tax. would, he added, “incentivize that Violations of noise ordinances ‘missing middle’” of affordable and other safety regulations are housing. treated with two warnings. On Another option might be to the third complaint the permit is offer pre-approved plans for revoked. accessory dwelling units — that As of the most recently availis, small residential structures deable data, Qualls said there are 53 tached from a single-family home non-exempt non-owner occupied but still located on the same lot. short-term rentals in residential “If you had pre-approved zones in Sandpoint and 43 known plans, you could plop them on enforcement actions since 2018. — meeting setbacks for an ADU Meanwhile, the city of McCall — and you wouldn’t necessarily has been a regional example need a fee for impacts,” he said, worth emulating when it comes ultimately making them more to short-term rentals. Another affordable for property owners to prominent Idaho resort communidevelop. The ultimate goal is to increase ty, McCall has many of the same amenities as Sandpoint: a lake, a density in preexisting residential ski mountain, located within a few neighborhoods without over-burhours of a major metro area, and dening the infrastructure. boasting the same kind of smallCall it “micro-infill developtown character coveted by both ment,” but the city of Sandpoint locals and tourists alike. has addressed both ADUs and McCall, however, has been short-term rentals, the latter in the tourism game longer than which Qualls said were subject Sandpoint, and, therefore, has to a revised ordinance in 2019 more experience with the tension that included a number of unique
between big-money housing and wage-labor needs. Community and Economic Development Director Michelle Groenevelt told attendees at the recent planning conference that McCall has an estimated 500 short-term rentals, 430 of which are known to be taxed and all of which function to take otherwise available single-family residences off the market for local workers. In her city, Groenevelt said short-term rentals that can sleep 20 or more people require a conditional use permit, putting the process before the public and carrying a number of fees. “It basically equates to having a commercial or a hotel use in a neighborhood,” she said. McCall also has a 7% tax on hotels, motels and short-term rentals, and added the implementation of its local housing strategy to the list of eligible recipients for the funds raised through that tax. “The idea is that while these short-term rentals are basically contributing to the housing issue, we’re also able to go back and request funding from our local option tax funds to help offset the impacts,” Groenevelt said. An example of how that’s starting to bear fruit is with an incentive program for deed-restricted local housing units specifically funded through the local option tax dollars collected from shortterm rentals. “There’s very much a nexus between the idea of taxing the shortterm rentals and using those funds for our housing issue,” she said. Asked to provide a “key takeaway” from the conversation about short-term rentals and how they affect the local workforce, Groenevelt said, “If you don’t have any regulations in play it’s really good to be proactive; if it’s not in your community already it will be.” Pick up the Oct. 28 edition of the Reader for the fifth part in this series, which will address other regional solutions to worker attraction and retention, including housing but also the “leviathan in the room,” as one expert put it, related to low wages in Idaho and how the Legislature might approach both issues. If you have a story of how the worker shortage and/or housing affordability has affected you or your business, share it with us at email@example.com. October 14, 2021 /
Where are all the workers? Part V Wages are the disease while housing is the symptom
By Zach Hagadone and Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey Reader Staff
This article is the fifth and final piece in an ongoing series during which the Reader has examined various aspects of the labor shortage affecting area employers. Part I was published Sept. 16, Part II on Sept. 23, Part III on Sept. 30 and Part IV on Oct. 14. Find the entire series on sandpointreader.com. When Danya Rumore looks across the communities of the Mountain West she sees a “probletunity” — that is, a problem and an opportunity posed by the crush of in-migration from high-wage coastal and inland urban centers to rural, amenity-rich areas, including her hometown of Sandpoint. “It’s a terrible place; no one wants to live there,” she joked at a meeting of the Idaho Chapter of the American Association of Planners, which took place virtually from Oct. 6-8 and drew experts from throughout the state. Rumore is a professor of law and planning at the University of Utah, director of the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program, and founder and co-director of the Gateway and Natural Amenity Region (GNAR) Initiative. In those capacities, she delivered the keynote address at the recent conference, keying in on “big city problems in small rural towns,” which have only grown more complex amid the upheaval spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. GNAR communities have between 150 and 25,000 residents; are located within 10 miles of a national park, state park, national forest, lake, scenic river, ski resort or other such natural amenity; and are further than 15 miles from an urbanized area. Based on that definition, Rumore said there are more than 1,500 GNAR communities nationwide, including 811 incorporated cities and 701 Census-designated places. More 14 /
/ October 28, 2021
than 30% of those communities are in the Mountain West. “We’re talking about a significant chunk of the Mountain West,” she said, noting that Sandpoint, McCall and Salmon are all considered Idaho GNAR communities, as well as Jackson Hole, Wyo.; Tahoe, Calif.; Park City, Utah; and Moab, Utah. All of them have been especially vulnerable to sweeping social and economic changes that have been occurring for the past two decades, but proceeded as if on “steroids” over the past 20 months. Quoting from a colleague, Rumore said, “COVID-19 expedited amenity migration to the rural west by 15 years. … That’s really hard to plan for.” In her work with the GNAR Initiative, Rumore has conducted extensive research and surveys with designated communities, isolating the top concerns facing them all — top of the list being affordability and availability of housing, and the second being average wages compared to the cost of that housing. The latter point, she said, is the “leviathan in the room.” “We need to deal with wealth inequality in this country,” she added, citing the oft-referenced anecdote that even as McDonald’s offers an $18-per-hour wage, it’s still not enough for entry-level workers to afford the average rent in most communities, which can rise into the $2,000 per month range even for one- and two-bedroom rental units. As employers, government officials, economic development experts, planners and employees themselves fret about the difficulty of securing and retaining workers, the conversation invariably returns to the extreme high cost of housing, but in many instances, attempting to solve the housing issue is an exercise in treating the symptom while ignoring the disease. At its basic level, the problem with the worker shortage starts with historically low wages — especially in amenity-rich
Minimum wage earners such as fast food employees are some of the hardest hit by workforce housing shortages. Courtesy photo.
communities where low-wage tourism and service industries play an outsized economic role. That’s the problem — the opportunity is capturing tax revenue and intellectual capital. However, in many ways, those places have for years been courting disaster, relying on quality of life to compensate for high rates of poverty, tethering an underpaid workforce to a precarious and ultimately untenable economic position that has been obliterated by a tsunami of out-of-town cash — gobbling up housing and stressing local infrastructure with sudden increased demand, all while continuing to expect services that even in less tumultuous times weren’t adequately supported by local wages. “Growth is as much a threat or more of a threat to community character and livability as increasing tourism,” Rumore said, later adding, “I honestly think there’s only so much these communities can do if we don’t deal with the fact that [amenity migrants] have so much buying power.” A high hurdle to address low wages Raising wages in Idaho has long been a toxic political commodity. Workers in the service and retail industries have been
traditionally less well paid but, in the COVID era, seen as increasingly vital to the functioning of the economy as a whole. Regardless, they have suffered the brunt of rising costs for everything from housing to basic commodities and powerful forces from Congress to the Idaho Statehouse have mounted a long-standing opposition to any increase in the minimum wage, predicated in large part on the argument that it would drive employers to insolvency and government into a regulatory quagmire. “What I want is a rising wage rate for everybody … but the problem with any federal mandate is what’s applicable in one community is not applicable in the other,” Gov. Brad Little said in a press briefing in April. “That’s the problem with a minimum wage — you could have it vary around the state, but the bureaucracy would be more than we can handle.” Meanwhile, the average Idahoan in 2019 earned almost $10,000 per year less than the national average, and between $15,000$16,000 less than their counterparts in neighboring states. Worse yet, Bonner County residents earn less than the average of their own region in the state, even on the metric of median household income, which in 2019 was pegged
at $50,256 — more than $3,600 less per year than the Northern Region as a whole. Workers can’t work unless they can afford to live where they work, but they can’t afford to do either if their wages are so low that it doesn’t make sense to do either. Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, floated a bill in the 2021 legislative session that would have raised Idaho’s minimum wage from $7.25 — established in 2009 — to $15 per hour, though by stages through July 2023. The federal minimum wage is $10.95 per hour and due to increase to $11.25 effective Jan. 1, 2022. Burgoyne’s Senate Bill 1028 died in committee, though he told the Idaho Capitol Sun in May that “it’s long overdue.” His legislation also would have increased wages for tipped workers, raising them from the current $3.35-per-hour minimum wage to $7.50 by 2023. Those wages haven’t changed since 2007. While efforts have surfaced in recent years to raise Idaho’s minimum wage, including ballot initiatives and mobilization campaigns like Idahoans for a Fair Wage, other voices around the state have been just as vocal with the opposite intent.
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< WORKERS, con’t from Page 14 > Namely, the Idaho Freedom Foundation — a far-right lobbyist group out of Boise — has made its position against raising the minimum wage clear. IFF President Wayne Hoffman, a former newspaper reporter turned libertarian activist who did not reply to the Reader’s request for comment, shared in a 2013 blog post that “the thing that is keeping Idahoans from experiencing the full level of economic opportunity” isn’t the state’s “failure to adopt a higher minimum wage, but the government’s willingness to put in place more and more barriers to economic opportunity” — barriers to starting businesses or entering a trade, according to IFF. More recently, Hoffman signed onto a letter headed up by D.C.-based conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks urging members of Congress to “reject any increase in the federal minimum wage.” The letter, dated June 23, 2021, drew signatures from two dozen similar special interest groups. “Whether it be to $11, $15 or any other dollar amount, increasing the federal minimum wage further takes away the freedom of two parties to agree on the value of one’s labor to the other’s product,” the FreedomWorks letter reads. “As a result, employment options are restricted and jobs are lost. Instead, the free market should be left alone to work in the best interest of employers and employees alike.” As for possible future moves by the Idaho Legislature regarding raising the minimum wage, the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry told the Reader that “it would likely have to come through the initiative process.” “We believe at IACI that there are so many other issues that we are working toward right now that seem to be more urgent since the marketplace has taken care of providing jobs far above and beyond minimum wage,” said Amos Rothstein, IACI communications director. IACI is the self-proclaimed “most effective business lobby” in Idaho, representing about 300 of the state’s employers in industries ranging from agriculture to construction to banking. Rothstein said that many of
IACI’s members have expressed concerns about the worker shortage, which he said can be credited to fear of COVID-19, early retirement, an increase in self-employed folks and the fact that “thousands and thousands of people around the country have become caretakers to children and elderly relatives because they either cannot afford external care or do not like the care options they can choose from.” That’s one of the aforementioned “other issues” that IACI is working toward solving with public policy: “access to childcare at the workplace, since that can be very cost prohibitive to many people, especially with multiple children, working full-time jobs.” Further, IACI is “pushing for bringing in more vetted refugees to Idaho and temporary workers on Visa so that they can be a part of the workforce here that desperately needs skilled and dedicated workers to help keep up with demand.” “We are proud Idaho has been such a good example of integrating refugees in the past and what the future holds for the state in this regard,” Rothstein continued. For now, this lobbying power isn’t naming a higher minimum wage as a solution for Idaho’s worker shortage. “Idaho is open for business,” Rothstein said. “Our member companies know that part of keeping a strong and talented workforce is to pay wages that attract people to their companies and allow their employee’s families to live comfortably here in [the] Gem State, even with the uptick in cost of living.” The case of Creston Close to home but a country away, Creston, British Columbia, is only about an hour and half north by car from Sandpoint. It exists among the same geographic features as Bonner and Boundary counties, its waters and mountains shared across the international border. It’s also an amenity-rich community that has been “discovered” by an influx of high-wage earning workers who not only bring their fat wallets to the local economy, but don’t necessarily contribute to its workforce while still putting stresses on its housing, infrastructure and wage structures.
“I think it’s all over right now, base of the issue, is the amount of it’s both our countries, and every money in workers’ bank accounts. community in British Columbia is “I don’t think if you just get struggling with it,” said Creston more housing stock it will solve City Councillor Norm Eisler. all the problems,” he said. “There’s a bit of an exodus from In British Columbia, the big cities minimum is due to $15 per hour “Growth is as much a threat or COVID. — based on We’ve the current more of a threat to community been so exchange rate, character and livability as increaslucky that’s $12.13 ing tourism ... I honestly think out here USD — but there’s only so much these commu- it’s still “noth— even when we nities can do if we don’t deal with ing, when rent were shut is so high,” the fact that [amenity migrants] down Eisler said. have so much buying power.” here I “I percould sonally think — Danya Rumore go for a minimum Founder and co-director of hike and wages need not see to be at least the Gateway and Natural anybody. $20 — that’s Amenity Region Initiative … [But] just getting by people these days,” are discovering it.” he told the Reader, adding later, Though Eisler is only in his “If you can’t afford to pay $15 first term on the Creston Council, an hour, you don’t have a viable he has already grasped many of business model.” the issues facing Creston and how “Fifteen dollars an hour might they resonate with Sandpoint, as be OK if you’re in a server job both communities have been “dis- and you’re making tips. I don’t covered” and subjected to similar think many people are paying just waves of in-migration by high$15 — I don’t think that’s possiwage earning remote workers or ble anymore,” he said, adding that otherwise well-heeled retirees in Creston prevailing wages are in leveraging their wealth to buy up the $20 to $25 range. their own piece of peace and quiet Eisler’s day job is as a masin the rural Inland Empire. sage therapist and he also picked “We are starting to run into up some shifts as a bartender — a problems here because of housing job that ended up paying $38 an because it’s hard for companies to hour: “That’s good money, but it get people to come here because wasn’t life-changing,” he said. they can’t afford to rent a house; Regarding the $15 miniso, unless you’re of means or mum wage in B.C., Eisler said, inter-generational wealth, it’s “I haven’t seen any businesses hard to qualify for a mortgage,” close,” and added that it will take he said. “a whole societal shift around As in Sandpoint, Creston is these issues” to find a measure of grappling with how best to craft balance between workers’ ability ordinances and regulations to to afford to work. encourage affordable housing — “It takes some bravery to do, among them, tax breaks for the and people will react, and you development of worker housing, just have to be brave and do it,” easing restrictions on accessory he said. “The way we look after dwelling units (referred to in Can- the least fortunate among us says ada as “lane-way” or “carriage everything about it.” houses”), increased multi-family housing and fee structures that ‘Pushed out’ would capture capital from develIn her 2021 book, Pushed Out: opers to be then allocated toward Contested Development and Rural supporting affordable housing Gentrification in the U.S. West, projects. University of Idaho sociology Regardless, “Developers are Professor Ryanne Pilgeram — a going to come in and make a shit- 1999 Sandpoint High School load of money, and they usually graduate — writes of a “new already have a lot of money,” he way” of envisioning economic said, underscoring that, at the development and growth, using
the history of Dover as a mill town-turned-resort community as a case study. Speaking at the Idaho Chapter of the American Association of Planners conference in early October, she sketched the broad argument of her book, which has quickly become a sensation among planning experts throughout the region: “It’s my belief that in planning communities we have to consider questions like, ‘Where will the people who cut our hair live? Where will the people who bag our groceries live? What about the people who teach our children? Where will they recreate and how will we create communities where the lives of all the people in our communities are intersecting in places where we are able to create community instead of creating these sorts of divisions?” The answer to that question also addresses an explanation of “where are all the workers?”. They are here, but in ever-fewer numbers — increasingly “pushed out,” as Pilgeram’s book puts it, due to a confluence of low wages that have exposed them to structural wealth inequalities as the commodities being traded in their communities morph from resource extraction to the natural amenities themselves. It’s a boom-bust cycle in which areas of special value are repeatedly exploited in the service of outside profit — whether it be timber, mining, or real estate and resort investment. Fixing the cyclical problem, or at least evolving out of it, will take political will — whether it be in the area of ordinances and regulations to encourage workforce housing, or structural changes to the prevailing wages in amenity-rich areas like Sandpoint, or listening to more varied voices in the growth and development process. That said, as Pilgeram and others have noted, “We have less political will than in some places to address these issues.” “People have lived in Idaho for at least 10,000 years and it’s only been in the last 100 years that we’ve been dealing with this intense boom and bust,” she said. “Maybe that doesn’t have to be our future.”
October 28, 2021 /