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Ketchum considering tent city for workers amid 'crushing inequality,' scarce affordable housing

"These are the people who work at your school. These are the people that work at your local business. These are the people who serve you."

KETCHUM, Idaho — In a town where some of the wealthiest people in the country keep lavish homes, glittering and vast against a backdrop of sweeping mountains, officials are mulling over a plan to allow Ketchum's nurses, teachers, and service workers to sleep in tents in the city park as rent and housing costs continue to soar out of their grasp. 

There's a bathroom in the park, after all, Ketchum Mayor Neil Bradshaw noted. They could walk over to the YMCA to take a shower before work. 

The pitch came last week as one of several suggestions during a contentious special city council meeting on how to tackle the increasingly dire affordable housing situation in Ketchum. The central Idaho town in the heart of Blaine County has long been a vacation destination for the ultra-rich, but boasts median home listing prices of $905,000, according to Realtor.com, while rent on single apartments routinely runs thousands of dollars a month. 

Bradshaw and members of the city council fielded comments from locals for whom frustrations about the increasing gulf of inequality in Blaine County are reaching a boiling point. 

Ketchum resident Reid Stillman's current rental home is being sold by the landlord, giving him just a few months to get out. He said he makes "good money" at his advertising job but has been unable to find another place to live.

"You need to step in," Stillman told the mayor. "Because not only am I going to be homeless with a good job Sept. 1, but my friends who are in the service industry, who don't make a lot of money - they can't pay $2,900 a month for a two-bedroom in Ketchum. This isn't San Francisco, Neil."

Ketchum City Council will discuss several possible short-term fixes during a Monday afternoon meeting. Along with the idea of allowing "temporary tented housing" in Rotary Park - only for people working for a business in Ketchum, not visitors - Bradshaw also floated ideas of opening parking lots for RV parking, offering housing vouchers or subsidies, or renting out blocks of hotel rooms for workers. 

The mayor added that he would like to see homeowners in Ketchum with extra space step up to help ease the burden.

"We're always going to be encouraging local residents to open their doors to one or two bedrooms that they may have unused in their own house as a way to reach out and do their part for the community," he said.

Bradshaw said that he was committed to longer-term solutions - building more affordable housing - as well, but it was clear that something needed to be done immediately. Right now. Before the summer comes, with its spike in tourism and influx of seasonal workers who will add to the throng of people desperately looking for a place to sleep at night. 

Stillman agreed. 

"I want to know what we are going to do now. And a tent city in Ketchum is a joke," he said."We are in Ketchum, Idaho and we have homeless people. They may not be in the street, and you may not see them, which is good for you and good for business, but they are living on couches, they are in friends' houses. They are in tents up north. They are camping down south, and they are doing anything they can to get to work here in town."

Kris Gilarowski, a manager at the Limelight Hotel, described a "massive traffic wave" of people coming into Ketchum for work in the morning and pouring out at night. 

But available housing is increasingly scarce in surrounding communities like Hailey, Shoshone, Bellevue, and Twin Falls, leaving people facing grim choices. 

Gilarowski recounted the story of one couple who opted to set up a tent in the national forest outside of town after being unable to find housing anywhere close to their jobs. 

"What was supposed to be a short stop measure turned into a 94-day ordeal," Gilarowski said. "They stayed in Ketchum, waited for the darkness of the night to get on Trail Creek Road when it is not cleared of the snow, they drove out to their camp, and they camped out into January."

After more than three months of living in the woods, he said, the pair was ultimately able to find a place to live in Hailey. But just recently, they have informed the home they rented was being put up for sale.

Another man who worked at the Montessori school commuted 220 miles each day from Mountain Home to Ketchum and back again, Gilarowski said. After months of that drive, unable to find any closer housing, the employee quit.

Several speakers at the meeting pointed the finger at wealthy, lawyered-up residents who fight to choke out any attempts at building affordable apartment complexes or homes in the City of Ketchum. The mayor admitted that "neighborhoods rose up and resisted" prior planned projects, effectively halting them from going forward. Tax credit applications - designed to incentivize private investors to build lower-cost housing - repeatedly died on the vine. 

"These are the people who work at your school. These are the people that work at your local business. These are the people who serve you and all you do is say 'not this, not that,'" Gilarowski said. "I know some of you put up your $8 million houses around this community, around these public lands that are owned by the citizens of the United States. You go out and do a spread in magazines to show off your houses, but you don't have compassion for working-class people." 

Gilarowski, who spearheaded the Occupy Ketchum Town Square group calling for more affordable housing solutions, says out-of-state investors and bad legislation at the Idaho Capitol share the blame for the current crisis. 

In particular, he blames Idaho House Bill 216, a piece of legislation signed into law in 2017 that stripped municipalities of their authority to regulate short-term rentals like AirBnBs or VRBOs. Homeowners and investors who realized they could charge visitors hundreds of dollars per night for a property as a short-term rental swiftly moved to get rid of longer-term tenants.

The law keeps Ketchum or Blaine County from putting limits on how many short-term rentals can be allowed in the city, or how they operate. As a result, longtime renters are being pushed out and affordable rentals are practically non-existent, he said.

Liz Keegan, who serves on the Blaine County Housing Authority, noted that the county has 15,000 housing units and 24,000 people. There is enough housing in the area, she said - just too many vacant units. 

Keegan suggested solutions including AirBnB owners changing their houses back to long-term rentals, or older residents opening some space in their home to renters in exchange for caretaking or other help around the house.

"We have incredible wealth here, but we also have crushing inequality," she said. "We need people to step up and put housing on the same level as public safety, public works, public health."

Ultimately, advocates say, without more workforce housing, Ketchum will falter.

The employee shortage businesses are grappling with nationwide is felt even more keenly in the Blaine County area. If nothing changes, Gilarowski and others warn, stores will close. Restaurants will go dark. Hospital staff, educators, electricians, hairstylists, and all the rest who help keep a town running will drift away to jobs in Boise, or in other states.

"Ketchum is the hub. Ketchum is the heart of the Valley. But what I don't think a lot of people realize is that right now, businesses are actively shutting down because they don't have employees," Stillman said. "So your little hub here is going to be gone."

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