Jeff Emerick was born and raised in the scenic, tourist destination and resort area that is Blaine County. But as time went by, Emerick saw past the initial beauty of the county and started feeling the effects of the deep-rooted affordable housing crisis.
Emerick left Blaine County for a short while, only to return when he was offered a job at the Ketchum Fire Department.
The station requires its workers to live nearby, as an emergency could happen at any point. Unfortunately, Emerick could not afford the costly price of rent in Ketchum or surrounding cities. So he picked up a couple more jobs.
According to Rent Data in 2019, it costs $1,748 to rent a house or four-bedroom apartment in Blaine County. Studios are starting at around $673 per month.
“There’s no housing, there’s no affordable housing,” he said. “And there’s a big attitude here that well if you can’t afford it, don’t live here. That’s kind of the older population and then the younger that are working day-to-day jobs, and labor jobs or any service its kind of always paycheck to paycheck.”
While working two to three jobs at a time, Emerick still could not afford rent.
“It’s just a horrible vicious cycle once you get behind a little bit,” he said. “… I was always working.”
Spending summers homeless
When serving the cities within Blaine County, he lived homeless for four summers moving from campsite to campsite. In the winter, as an employee, Emerick would stay at the Sun Valley Resort dorms or head to his friend’s cabin in East Magic Reservoir.
“I felt fortunate because when I was homeless, I hated even saying that because I got to drive out to a beautiful area and go camp,” he said. “It’s not like being homeless. It’s different looking than say Boise. When you’re homeless trying to live under an overpass or anything. Here, you are going to the woods and camping. Nobody talks about it, and a lot of people do that.”
Emerick says he is not alone in moving from campsite to campsite because affording housing while working a minimum wage job is near impossible.
“You see people staying at the different campsites, always,” he said. “I had it down. So one summer I had my tent in the back of my truck, so I could literally collapse and respond to call with the fire department. And then go park or camp anywhere… As long as you don’t stay at a (campsite) longer than two weeks, you don’t have to pay. People are constantly moving around. It’s kind of an out of sight, out of mind thing.”
Since Emerick has got back on his feet and has found two jobs, one as a member of the board of directors at the Hunger Coalition, the other at the Blaine County election office.
The lack of housing support for essential workers
But housing affordability has progressed little since then, and COVID-19 has only made the need for it more dire.
Nathan Harvill, the executive director of Blaine County Housing Authority says that wages have remained stagnant while housing prices continue to go up.
“We definitely have about 150 households that are currently looking for affordable housing, either to purchase or to rent,” he said. “I’d say that most of the people within our list are better suited toward rentals, either by choice or just because of economic circumstances…It makes it difficult because we don’t have a pipeline of a lot of things coming online. We do have some movement going on in certain places here and there but nothing systemic that drives a solution to that.”
The Hunger Coalition created a COVID-19 report that states 25% of all jobs in Blaine are leisure and hospitality. Also found on the report is a survey conducted in June with its visitors, that found 64% of people seeking help worked in leisure and hospitality.
“As a community, we need to develop a multi-pronged approach to address the root causes of financial insecurity so hardworking locals can afford to live here,” Jeanne Liston, the executive director of the Hunger Coalition said. “This means encouraging a living wage, affordable housing, food, childcare and healthcare.”
According to Blaine County’s compressive plan, tourism is one of the biggest contributing factors to its economy. So, in a town dependent on tourism these jobs are essential, yet these are the people who can not afford the area.
“The saying in Blaine County was you either have three houses or three jobs or three roommates, and it’s really kind of true,” Harvill said. “But that’s not really a sustainable model for long-term prosperity. These people are the ones that keep the economy going. They’re the clerks of the stores do a lot of the different kinds of unseen jobs out there, but they’re vitally important if they all went away. Our community would die essentially because you’re going to have to have them.”