FACE OF AN ECONOMY: Housing in U.S. city

A Journal of People Report

Housing for the common citizens is a chronic problem in capitalist economy. This is a widely discussed and researched issue. Yet the economy fails. In one sense, it is not the economy’s failure. Rather it is one of the characters of the economy.

The following reports from the U.S. tell about the housing reality. This is a face of the economy with huge resources.  

A Hailey, Idaho datelined report by The New York Times (“A Town’s Housing Crisis Exposes a ‘House of Cards’”, July 31, 2022) said:

‘Near the private jets that shuttle billionaires to their opulent Sun Valley getaways, Ana Ramon Bartolome and her family have spent this summer living in the only place available to them: behind a blue tarp in a sweltering two-car garage.

‘With no refrigerator, the extended family of four adults and two young children keeps produce on plywood shelves. With no sink, they wash dishes and themselves at the nearby park. With no bedrooms, the six of them sleep on three single mattresses on the floor.

‘“I’m very anxious, depressed and scared,” said Bartolome, who makes her living tending to the homes of wealthy residents but cannot afford even the cheapest housing in the famous ski-and-golf playground.’

The New York Times report said:

‘Resort towns have long grappled with how to house their workers, but in places such as Sun Valley, those challenges have become a crisis as the chasm widens between those who have two homes and those who have two jobs. Fueled in part by a pandemic migration that has gobbled up the region’s limited housing supply, rents have soared over the past two years, leaving priced-out workers living in trucks, trailers or tents.

‘It is not just service workers struggling to hold on. A program director at the YMCA is living in a camper on a slice of land in Hailey. A high school principal in Carey was living in a camper but then upgraded to a tiny apartment in an industrial building. A City Council member in Ketchum is bouncing between the homes of friends and family, unable to afford a place of his own. A small-business owner in Sun Valley spends each night driving dirt roads into the wilderness, parking his box truck under the trees and settling down for the night.

‘The housing shortfall is now threatening to paralyze what had been a thriving economy and cherished sense of community. The hospital, school district and sheriff’s office have each seen prospective employees bail on job offers after realizing the cost of living was untenable. The Fire Department that covers Sun Valley has started a $2.75 million fundraising campaign to build housing for their firefighters.

‘Already, restaurants unable to hire enough service workers are closing or shortening hours. And the problems are starting to spread to other businesses, said Michael David, a Ketchum council member who has been working on housing issues for the past two decades.

‘“It is kind of a house of cards,” he said. “It is close to toppling.”

‘Built as a destination ski resort to mirror the iconic winter appeal of the Alps, the Sun Valley area has grown into an exclusive enclave for the wealthy and famous, drawing Hollywood celebrities, political elites from Washington, D.C., and business titans from Wall Street, many of whom gather each year for Allen & Co.’s annual media finance conference, known as the “summer camp for billionaires.” They have scooped up desirable vacation properties nestled next to winter ski lodges and summer golf courses, away from the gawking crowds of their home cities.’

The report added:

‘With the onset of the pandemic, the region saw an influx of wealthy buyers looking for a work-from-home destination with plentiful amenities, and the migration sent housing costs soaring even further. In Ketchum, the town next to Sun Valley, officials found that home prices shot up more than 50% over the past two years, with the median reaching about $1.2 million. Two-bedroom rentals went from less than $2,000 a month to more than $3,000.

‘Those jolts came after two decades of minimal residential construction in the city and a dramatic shift in recent years that converted renter-occupied units into those that were either kept largely vacant by their owners or used as short-term rentals.

‘Similar trends are happening in resort towns across the Rocky Mountain West, including Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Aspen, Colorado; and Whitefish, Montana. Although some larger employers, including the Sun Valley Co., have developed dorm-style living options for seasonal workers, those have done little to change the housing trajectories for the broader communities.

‘People filed into a regional food bank in Bellevue, Idaho, one recent afternoon, ordering boxes of food from a warehouse stocked with cereal, fresh produce and Idaho potatoes. One family there said they were being evicted from the trailer park where they live because the land was going to be redeveloped. They had been unable to find a new place and were fearful about what was coming next.

‘The food bank has experienced a surge in demand in the past two years, serving about 200 families each week to nearly 500 with the number still climbing, said Brooke Pace McKenna, a leader at the Hunger Coalition, which runs the food bank.

‘“More and more, we are seeing the teachers, the policemen, the Fire Department,” McKenna said.

It said:

‘Kayla Burton had grown up in the Sun Valley region and moved away after high school more than a decade ago. When she returned last year to take a job as a high school principal, she and her husband, who is a teacher, were shocked at how hard it was to find a place to live. Home prices were spinning out of control, she said, even for places that were in desperate need of repairs. When rentals became available, the properties were flooded with applicants. The couple looked at trying to build their own place but found that the cost was far out of reach.

‘Burton and her husband moved into a camper on her parents’ property. The couple have since managed to find a unit inside an industrial building with no air conditioning, leaving them wondering if it is the kind of place where they would want to start a family.

‘“We are in this weird limbo spot in our life right now,” she said.

‘With some job applicants unwilling to make the move, the region’s school district now has 26 job openings, some that have gone unfilled for months. The district is working on plans to develop seven affordable-housing units for employees.

‘Gretchen Gorham, co-owner of Johnny G’s Subshack sandwich shop in Ketchum, said that although it was vital to find housing for firefighters, teachers and nurses, she also worried about the many people who service vehicles, equipment and homes.

‘This year, Ketchum officials asked voters to approve a tax increase to fund affordable housing for hundreds of workers over the next 10 years. It did not pass.

‘“We live in a town of Wizard of Oz,” Gorham said. “People say one thing, and then behind a closed curtain, they are doing another.”

‘Officials in the region have been reaching for Band-Aid solutions. In Hailey, city rules prohibit RVs from parking on private property for more than 30 days, but council members have agreed not to enforce those rules for now; as a result, RVs can be seen in driveways and side yards across town. In Ketchum, officials considered opening a tent city for workers but decided against the idea.

‘So, in an area whose principal asset is its spectacular wilderness, some people have taken refuge in the woods.

‘Aaron Clark, 43, who owns a window-washing business, lost his long-term rental this past spring when the landlord sold the property for well beyond what Clark could afford. Knowing the exorbitant cost of all the other options around him, Clark moved into the box truck he uses to shuttle his ladders and washing equipment.

‘Inside the truck, he has a bed and cabinets, and he recently added amenities such as a sink with running water and solar power. He also got a refrigerator, so he no longer has to keep restocking an icebox for his food. Out the back is a shower hose with heated water.

‘Each night, when he’s done working, he drives out into the wilderness to park for the night. One recent day, he found a spot at the end of a potholed dirt road, next to a stream, where he spent a bit of time assessing the cryptocurrency market on his computer and then played fetch with his dog. Clark said he had found joy in the lifestyle, which at least has allowed him to save for when he eventually reenters the housing market.

‘But it has its challenges.

‘“It is a drain, every day, deciding, ‘Where am I going to park, where am I going to go?’” he said. “You get off work, you are tired, you are hungry, you are dirty, and now you have to decide what you are going to do next.”’

The New York Times report said:

‘For the region’s many Latino workers, about one-fourth to one-half are living in difficult situations, said Herbert Romero, co-founder of the Hispanic LatinUS Leadership Task Force of Blaine County, a group that works with the community. He said he had seen up to 10 people living in two-bedroom mobile homes. Others are living on couches. Some have been living in vehicles.

‘Ricky Williams, 37, grew up in the region before moving away and starting a career in firefighting. A year ago, he and his wife planned a return to the Sun Valley area, anticipating a high cost of living but still unprepared for what they would find.

‘He recalled checking out one dilapidated home that was on the market for $750,000 — well beyond their budget with him as a full-time firefighter and his wife as a small-business owner — and there was a rush of potential buyers on the day it was available to see. He said the couple was lucky to get one of the Fire Department’s existing housing units, paying discounted rent to live next to a fire station in exchange for being on call outside regular work hours.

‘Williams said he feared what was becoming of his hometown as he watched people priced out and moving away.

‘“It has affected so many of my friends and family,” he said. “I came back here to this community to give back to the community. And I kind of see it slowly dwindling away. It is pretty heartbreaking.”’

Business and homelessness

A report by Fox News (Seattle businesses take law into own hands to combat homelessness, angering activists, August 1, 2022) said:

‘Business and property owners in Seattle are installing 1-ton concrete blocks on city streets to prevent RVs and homeless encampments from forming or returning to an area.

‘”Individual businesses and residents are putting ecology blocks out as taking matters in their own hands because if they call the city and say there are RVs out in front of their business or out in front of their home, they can’t do anything about it,” business owner JW Harvey told The Seattle Times.

‘Anonymous Seattleites have hauled the massive 1 to 2-ton blocks – known as “ecology blocks” or “eco blocks” – using special equipment outside residential areas and in front of businesses to prevent RVs from parking and homeless encampments from forming.

‘Seattle has struggled with homelessness issues for years, which only worsened during the pandemic. Seattle and King County ranked as the third area in the nation with the most homeless people in 2020, recording roughly 11,700 people living on the streets. Washington state ranks fifth across the country for its homeless population, at 30 people per 10,000 residents.

‘Encampments in Seattle and in its county grew during the pandemic, with a 50% increase in tents in the city’s urban center, according to a previous Seattle Times report. Data from the King County Regional Homelessness Authority reported that roughly 13,368 people were homeless in 2022, up nearly 14% since 2020 numbers.

‘Large vehicles such as RVs are only allowed to be parked in industrial zoned areas of the city, but the city paused parking enforcement during the pandemic. Anonymous individuals then proceeded to install more eco-blocks in front of businesses and homes, most notably in the neighborhoods such as Georgetown, Ballard and Sodo, The Seattle Times reported.’

The report said:

‘Just in June, a local health club in the city alerted followers and members on social media that the gym would install eco-blocks near its building once a homeless encampment was cleared by the city.

‘”To avoid the return of the encampment, the West Seattle Health Club is partnering with our neighboring businesses to place eco-blocks along the surrounding area,” the West Seattle Health Club said in a letter in June.

‘Safety for patrons and employees is often a top concern for business owners, while businesses are also worried about losing their livelihoods if they install the blocks, the executive director of the Sodo Business Improvement Area, Erin Goodman, told The Seattle Times.

‘Having a business near a homeless encampment includes additional stressors and liabilities, according to Goodman. Encampments can attract rats that could hurt food manufacturers and restaurants, while fires started at homeless encampments and RVs could damage retail buildings.

‘Crime has also skyrocketed in Seattle since 2020, when the pandemic upended society and protests and riots swept the nation following the death of George Floyd. Murders spiked by 61% in 2020 compared to 2019, notching the highest number of murders for the city in 26 years. As of April of this year, violent crime was up 32% compared to 2021, previous reports found.

‘Georgetown business owner JW Harvey told the outlet that he has resisted installing eco-blocks due because they would take up public parking and look ugly, but the “ripple effects” of working near the encampments has drained him.

‘He said that over the last decade, but most notably during the pandemic, he has spent more time talking to those living in the encampments and providing them tools and water than he has actually working. Harvey argued that many business owners feel like the eco-blocks are their only choice to keep the encampments away from their stores, citing that it only takes a couple of weeks for a homeless encampment to return to an area the city had cleared and cleaned.’

It said:

‘Installing an eco-block on a city street is illegal, but the city has not forcefully demanded the blocks’ removal, The Seattle Times report shows. There are hundreds of such blocks of the streets of Seattle, but only 25 property and business owners have been warned that they could face fines for not removing the blocks since June 2021. The fines include: a $250 penalty for first offense, $500 for the second and $1,000 for the third violation. There are no limits to how many fines a person or business can receive in a year.

‘The report notes that none of the 25 people or business owners who received warnings about the blocks received a citation on the matter.

‘”I don’t think [warnings] are going to deter anybody,” Goodman told the outlet. “They are still going to do it and even for the period of time before the city notices, they get a bit of relief.”

‘As parking enforcement in the city resumed this year, homeless outreach advocates claimed that it’s unfair homeless people are facing fines for parking in restricted areas while people who install the blocks are not being patrolled at the same rate.

‘”The new mayor ran on a law-and-order platform and this is the law,” said Bill Kirlin-Hackett, the director of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, told The Seattle Times. “We just find it to be quite hypocritical.”

‘One man who has lived out of his RV for six years told the outlet that the eco-blocks are symbols of hatred towards homeless people.

‘”So much of the community has so much built-up hatred against us,” Garth Caroll said. “We are just trying to fend for ourselves until we can get some permanent housing.”’

The report added:

‘The city cited difficulty in determining who is responsible for the eco-blocks on the streets when responding to complaints, as they are often anonymously dropped in areas encompassing multiple businesses or homes. The Seattleites who install the blocks often do so right after members of Seattle Public Utilities ask RVs to move off a street in order for them to clean.

‘The city said it does respond to public complaints about ecology blocks, but it does not have workers “continuously patrol the city looking for violations.” The matter also comes down to costs of moving the massive blocks. The city has contracts with towing companies to remove vehicles in illegal areas, but not to remove the eco-blocks.

‘Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office and the Seattle Department of Transportation did not immediately respond to Fox News Digital’s requests for comment.’

With these reports, questions come:

Is this a failure of the economy?

Why this failure, if a failure?

Is there a clash of interests between citizens and the economy?

Is this an isolated incident, or face of an economy?

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