In a previous post, I laid out some of the issues that are most affecting Kootenai County, and one of them is growth. As I noted, while I can sympathize with longtime residents who are displeased with the significant population growth we have experienced in the last few years, I also recognize there are benefits to our community from this expansion. But whatever your views on the matter, we must acknowledge that the growth trend will not stop anytime soon. The only question is how we are going to deal with it. I will focus on the housing issue, how the population increase has impacted it, and how we can address it.

Kootenai County has experienced a significant influx of new residents. Some are from other areas of Idaho, but many are from out of state. The fact is that Idaho is one of the fastest-growing states in the country, and North Idaho has been particularly affected by the influx. It’s no wonder: Kootenai County is beautiful, close to a major metropolitan airport, full of thriving low-crime communities, and populated by friendly, happy people. I can attest that it is a great place to raise a family. 

People are also drawn to Idaho because of our state’s commitment to freedom and traditional values. The pandemic showed people which state governments are committed to these ideals and which are governed by those who would use any crisis to expand their control over our lives. Idaho’s growth is a testament to the desire for people to live free.

But the results of this migration on housing have been predictable. When something is in high demand, prices increase, which has been borne out in Kootenai County. Five years ago, parcels of land were priced at $5,000 to $6,000 per acre, but today, prices range from $20,000 to $30,000 per acre, depending on location and utility availability. Even within city boundaries, the cost of a small lot now exceeds $100,000.

Over the last ten years, single-family residence median sales prices in Coeur d’Alene, the seat of Kootenai County and its most populous city, skyrocketed by over $380,000 – an over 200% increase. According to the Next Steps report issued in October that addresses housing issues in Kootenai County, the median home price in Kootenai County is over $600,000. 

In practical terms, to qualify for a conventional home loan at the current interest rate of roughly 7%, a homebuyer with a 20% downpayment (i.e., $120,000) must have a household income of over $90,000. Currently, U.S. Census data indicates that the average household income in Kootenai County is about $72,000. These figures illustrate the financial burden on local residents seeking to enter the housing market. The Next Steps report indicates that roughly 80% of residents have now been priced out of the current market in the community they grew up in. That is not what I want for Kootenai County residents.

As of February, house prices are softening slightly in Kootenai County. But we cannot rely on market fluctuations to solve our problems in the long term. Neither can we hope that mortgage rates decrease. While that will undoubtedly help homebuyers qualify for loans, it will also bring more people into the market, spurring additional upward pressure on house prices. 

Further, housing costs impact more than single-family homes. Median rent prices are also increasing; average rents in the area have reached over $1,500 per month. That is a hefty price tag for young people trying to get a foothold on their life’s journey in our community.

Affordable Housing is a Must

The price increase has already initiated a trend of locals moving out of the area in search of affordable housing. While longtime homeowners may be pleased with the equity growth in their homes, that does not help people entering the market – the young families and children of longtime residents who have jobs in the area and want to stay.

It also does not help our economy overall. While Kootenai County is known as a great place to retire, we also want to have young individuals employed in the area to work and provide the services and products that support the region. We want our police and firefighters, hospital workers, and other workers to live in the communities they serve. We need our county’s economy to thrive in every aspect.

What can we do to accommodate growth without causing detrimental impacts on our quality of life?

Increasing the housing supply is non-negotiable. We can only make housing affordable by providing more of it. At the same time, we can do without crowded roads and communities or acres of apartment complexes. So, we have to look at growth strategically.

First, we need to recognize the state of our infrastructure. Not every community can absorb more traffic and housing, so we need to identify which areas of the county can build more housing without significant adverse effects on utilities, roads, and services. We have a large county; there is no need to overcrowd our cities.

Second, we must encourage our local cities to think more deeply about building communities, not just housing. Some developments on the prairie have been short-sighted, building hundreds of homes with no land set aside for anything else. A functioning community has more than just houses. It has fire and police services, parks and recreation, schools, shopping, restaurants, and houses of worship. Do we want to build sprawling suburban enclaves where people are forced to drive 10 miles to go grocery shopping or get to work? I have no interest in turning Kootenai County into a Southern California clone, where you need to drive your car just to go get a cup of coffee.

North Idaho cities should be encouraged to build walkable communities where neighbors’ children go to school together, where they run into their friends at the grocery store, gather at the local coffee shop or cafe, or meet up at the neighborhood park for a play date. We need to build close functioning communities in which residents have a stake in the overall quality of life and the welfare of their neighbors. 

As County Commissioners, we have a say in the regulations and costs of building within county lines. If we reduce the financial and regulatory burdens on developers to build in our county while still safeguarding open space and meeting our obligations to provide infrastructure and safety, we can help keep housing costs down. 

We need to work together with our county’s cities and all stakeholders to envision a better Kootenai County. While we cannot control the market, we can react to it with forward-thinking and rational responses, with an eye focused more on quality of life than on how to increase tax revenues.

While county commissioners have a limited ability to determine how our community grows, we do have some say, particularly when it comes to preserving open space and supporting infrastructure. But we can set the tone for how we would like our county to develop and urge a reevaluation of land use patterns. 

As a county commissioner, you can count on me to advocate a more rational and responsible growth trajectory for the county, emphasizing preserving the quality of life that makes this region unique. We need to keep Idaho Idaho and make sure that those moving to this area embrace Idaho and not the detrimental policies they came here to escape. 

My name is John Padula, and I am running for Kootenai County Commissioner. Vote your conscience on May 21, 2024.