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A Vision for Housing that Should Guide Development: A View from Kootenai County

The battle between a home-ownership society and a renting society is not the only battle. A decent country can save home-ownership, but lose its sense of community.

The following essay is from the recently-launched Kooentai Strong website. It concerns the problem of suburban sprawl, something Idahoans of the Treasure Valley, Magic Valley, and of eastern Idaho share with Kootenai County. How we live is a very primal thing--it shapes who we are and what we think it good just as it reflects who we are and what we think is good.

The effects of the housing crisis are easy to see, especially here in Kootenai County. The median home price is now $660k. “Starter homes” cost more than $400k. But the median household income is $57,242. For a young family buying their first home—let's say $450k on a 3% FHA loan at 5.6%—the monthly payment is about $3,300. That’s nearly 70% of their pre-tax income!

This math doesn’t work at all. When you combine it with crushing inflation and rising interest rates, young families have little hope at all of ever owning a home—the sine qua non of the American Dream.

At the same time, Kootenai County is facing rabid suburbanization and urban sprawl, increased traffic, and a dramatic change of character as we watch farmland disappear into big development projects. No one is happy with this state of affairs, but there’s been no clear vision for an alternative. Halting all development leads to a dying county as the next generation either leaves or becomes a permanently-renting underclass. Yet allowing the current process of rezoning and suburban building is no better. It feels like a lose-lose situation.

A Vision for Kootenai County

Whenever the path forward is unclear, we should consider our principles and then work forward from there. Here are seven conservative principles that should guide our vision for the future of Kootenai County.

1. Families

First and foremost, we recognize the family as the fundamental unit of society (not the individual). Therefore, we should always ask ourselves, “what’s best for families in our county?” Sometimes we have to make tradeoffs between what’s best from an individual liberty perspective and what’s best from a family-oriented perspective. I suggest we remember that families are more important than individuals and prefer them in our policy. We should make it as easy as possible to form a family and keep it together.

2. Home Ownership

We recognize that the ownership and cultivation of one’s own land is fundamental to our conception of liberty. If we own our land and exercise property rights, we can be free; if we are forced to rent from corporate and globalist inventors, we are slaves. This is not to say that everyone is entitled to land; merely that it should be attainable through hard work for most young families (meaning you can afford it in your twenties, when you actually need it).

3. Organic Growth

Organic growth should be preferred to big development projects. A homeowner expanding or remodeling his home into a duplex is a better kind of growth than a high-rise apartment building. Allowing wide leeway for people to develop and cultivate their own land both respects property rights and leads to a gradual organic growth with smaller increases in density. We should prefer this to large outside investors and developers putting up entire neighborhoods at once in a sea of monotony.

4. Community

We want strong communities centered around our churches, our neighborhoods, and our cities. We reject the isolation and atomization that increasingly affects modern society. Real face-to-face interactions between the people we live and work alongside are absolutely vital to building any sense of community ties. Our architecture and development should reflect our nature as social beings.

5. Small Business

As conservatives, we recognize that small business is the backbone of America; not large globalist corporations. To this end, we should prefer mom-and-pop restaurants over McDonalds. We should prefer bodegas over WalMart (here's how to do a value per-acre analysis yourself). We should make it as easy as possible to start a small business, especially out of one’s home.

6. Single Income

It should be possible to meet all these goals for families with a single income. Some families will still choose to maintain two incomes, but mothers should not be forced to put their kids in daycare and work all day just to make ends meet. When mothers have the option of staying home, we can build productive households that enrich our lives through homeschooling, gardening, domestic crafts, and part-time businesses. Although we use the term “stay at home moms,” these women actually form a vital part of a local productive economy.

7. Subsidiarity

Subsidiarity is the principle that problems should be solved on the smallest level that’s reasonable—for example, the federal government should not be involved in things that states can do themselves. It also orders our responsibilities into a set or concentric circles. For example, first and foremost, I’m responsible for my own relationship with Jesus and being the kind of man that I ought. Then, I’m responsible for my family. Then my church community, my city, my county, my state, my country, etc. I have some responsibility to people of other countries, but it’s much more remote than my responsibility to my neighbors, which ought to come first.

Applying this principle to our county, we should recognize that the good of the residents of Kootenai County should always come before the good of tourists, visitors, or far-off investors. This is important when we consider things like access to city parks and how many vacation rentals we should have.

Why Suburbia Doesn't Align With Our Principles

Do the current building patterns in Kootenai County align with these seven conservative principles that should be guiding development? Let’s take a look.

Isolation Versus Community

Here’s a typical suburban house:

A typical suburban house

The first and most obvious problem is isolation. This is apparent from the aesthetics and layout. This house has a snout—the garage sticking out takes up most of the frontage, completely overshadowing the front door, which ought to be the focus (classic McMansion mistake). When you come home to a house like this, you typically drive right into the garage without ever leaving your car.

There’s no front porch and, with a large setback from the road, casual conversation with neighbors is rare and awkward. You could live here for years and never say more than two words to your neighbors. This doesn’t support our value of community! This is social atomization.

What would be a more community-oriented design?

  1. Slide the house left to the edge of the property line so there’s space for the driveway to wrap around the right side. Side setbacks currently make this illegal.

  2. Now that you don’t need driveway space in front, pull the house forward near the sidewalk and add a front porch that visually frames the front door. This removes the snout and puts you in conversation range of neighbors on the sidewalk. It also moves lawn space to your backyard where it’s more useful—the HOA doesn’t care so much about what you do back there and now you have enough contiguous space to play catch with your kids.

  3. While we’re at it, we might as well reduce the space between the sidewalk and the road, which is primarily there because developers have to meet green space and setback minimums. This would be much more valuable as part of your backyard than the awkward no man’s land that it is.

What has this accomplished? Distance between houses is still the same, usable yard space is increased, the front facade looks much better, and you can have real spontaneous conversations with your neighbors. This is a boon for community formation.

Community Is Where You Are

Another issue with forming communities is who owns the homes. Who has skin in the game. Who wants to make the neighborhood nicer to live in. Who lives there all the time versus just in the summer.

This may be the biggest factor making housing unaffordable in our county. BlackRock, for example, manages over $10 trillion in assets and has been pouring money into real estate. There are many more just like them, and houses in our county are being bought up and turned into rentals. If we don’t stop this, we will absolutely become a nation of permanent renters and it will destroy Kootenai County too. We should pass laws that push back against these big corporations and ensure that our children can afford to live here.

We also have many homes here turned into permanent vacations rentals on Airbnb or VRBO. Having some is good, but we’re way past that. Vacation rentals put foreigners above county residents (violating our principle of subsidiarity) and don’t contribute to building community (violating that principle too). We should limit short-term rentals in the county to ensure we have enough housing for our own families to live in. Our own residents come first. Big Development Growth