Benewah County could see some relief from chronic housing shortages within one year.

That’s according to County Commissioner Jack Buell.

“I think progress is being made. I’d say less than a year before it starts moving—before housing starts being built,” Mr. Buell said.

Benewah County and the city of St. Maries are working in conjunction with Timber Plus to attract housing developers to the area.

Much of the details are still being worked out among the parties involved. But discussions among the county, city and Timber Plus focus on spurring development by taking advantage of St. Maries designation as an Opportunity Zone.

According to Mayor Tom Carver, also a Timber Plus board member, the groups met to discuss what Opportunity Zones are and how to take advantage of the designation.

According to the Internal Revenue Service, opportunity zones are economically distressed communities where new investments, under certain conditions may be eligible for preferential tax treatment.

“If we can get investors to develop in our town and they leave it here for 10 years they don’t have to pay capital gains tax,” said Timber Plus Director Alex Barta. “Then if that project makes a profit, they don’t pay capital gains tax on that either.”

Capital gains taxes are a tax on the profits from the sale of an asset such as land and can be as much as 20 percent on assets held for more than a year, or 37 percent on assets held for less than a year. That savings coupled with other incentives could help draw developers according to Mr. Barta.

However, there are other challenges to overcome like population density and land value.

“Put it this way, If I’m a developer and can build in Post Falls—that population of 30,000 people—or in St. Maries for the same price, I’m going to build in Post Falls,” Mr. Barta said.

The county could lower the price of land, even sell it at a loss, to overcome the appeal of larger areas. And the city of St. Maries could offer additional developer incentives by waiving or lowering utility connection fees.

Asked if the county would be willing to sell property at a low or even negative price, Mr. Buell said, “We’re in the process of looking at that now.”

It is not simple as ‘making it so’ of course. According to Mr. Buell any property would first have to be appraised and then put up for a bid.

Mayor Carver could not be reached in time to comment on whether the city would wave or lower utility fees. In an earlier interview he did say that city is working on ordinances to allow for the condemnation or demolition of buildings where appropriate.

Housing shortages in St. Maries have impacted area employers including Benewah Community Hospital and the U.S. Forest Service and to a lesser extent Valley Vista Care.

According to BCH CEO Liz Sellers the hospital has made offers of employment to two physicians, a director of nursing, respiratory therapists, registered nurses and a human resources director, all of whom declined the offer after being unable to find housing.

“All of these people are not finding housing and we’re losing them. It’s a big issue for the community,” Ms. Sellers said.

An employee of the Forest Service said that it is not uncommon for Forest Service employees to commute, daily, to and from Coeur d’Alene or further. A commute of approximately 50 miles, or one hour each way.

The average commute time according to the U.S. Census Bureau is 26.1 minutes, approximately 4.35 hours per week.

St. Maries Valley Vista Care Human Resources Manager Heidi McGreal said that long-term housing is less of an issue, but the contracted travel nurses the facility relies on often struggle to find temporary housing. Contract employees have been housed in St. Maries motels—at much higher costs than long-term rentals.

Suzy Epler, St. Maries Realty, can attest to the challenges of finding housing in the area.

According to Ms. Epler, of the homes listed, the average home age is in the early 1900s.

“For any newer homes to purchase there are very few,” Ms. Epler said. “And by newer we’re talking 1970 - on.”

As of this writing, Ms. Epler said that there are 12 homes, and one manufactured home, listed for sale in the city of St. Maries. In Benewah County there are 66 homes listed for sale.

“Listings are really low,” she said. “it’s a great time to sell.”

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