Trash, fires and soaring home prices: Idaho copes with city dwellers fleeing COVID

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Idaho's state Capitol, with the Boise skyline in the background. (iStockphoto/Getty Images)
Idaho's state Capitol, with the Boise skyline in the background. (iStockphoto/Getty Images)

Bill Rauer, executive director of the Idaho Building Contractors Association, was shocked when in the midst of the pandemic he started hearing about people from out of state showing up on the doorsteps of local homeowners and offering $50,000 to $150,000 over market price for their homes.

“When the pandemic hit, it just seemed like everyone who was contemplating going to Idaho thought, ‘That’s it, we’re going,’” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Last year, Idaho’s population took the top spot for year-to-year growth, with an increase of 2.1 percent, and second place for the fastest-growing state in the country over the past decade, with an increase of 17.3 percent, according to U.S. census data. But Idaho’s popularity soared even more during the COVID-19 pandemic. The meteoric rise in its appeal, and the growing pains locals are now facing, are an example of the aftermath of the urban-to-rural exodus in evidence throughout the country.

Since the pandemic hit the United States, New Yorkers have flocked to upstate New York, Vermont and Florida. Populations in California, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois and a few other states with big cities dropped so much that they each lost a House seat in Congress. Meanwhile, Utah saw a 1.5 percent increase in just one year, and North Dakota’s population hit an all-time high. These numbers, which already reveal a strong trend in urban-to-rural migration, barely scratch the surface, because the census data, which was released in July 2020, covers only the first few months of a pandemic that finished 2020 strong and went into 2021 roaring.

Homes in suburban Salt Lake City, which is also bucking the trend of sluggish U.S. population growth.
Homes in suburban Salt Lake City, which is also bucking the trend of sluggish U.S. population growth. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

Now, 17 months later, Idahoans and people in other rural states throughout the country are realizing that the increased population wasn’t just a phase, and locals are trying to figure out how they can maintain the serenity that rural life allows with the influx of people who have arrived seeking just that.

“This Idaho is nothing like the Idaho I grew up in,” said Rauer. “But I fall short of calling that a bad thing.”

The increased population has its advantages, including greater economic opportunity, more tax dollars and more people active in local politics. But as more people leave apartment buildings for big yards and outdoor recreation, those who have lived in rural areas for generations are watching their home state change before their eyes.

“The real issue that we’re seeing is the lack of available housing,” said Chris St. Germain, director of economic development in Clearwater County, in northern Idaho.

In one part of northern Idaho, Coeur d’Alene, the median sales were up 47 percent from March 2020 to March 2021, according to the Wall Street Journal/Realtor.comHousing Market Index.

“It’s really changing the economy,” said Christine Bradbury, a fourth-generation Idahoan. “On the one hand, we have people coming to shop, which is good for small businesses. But where I see really, really hurting is our younger generation, who need affordable housing. I have two teenagers, and I’m not sure where they are going to live.”

Employers are also finding it impossible to hire new employees, both seasonal and full time, because of the housing shortage.

Residential homes in Boise, Idaho.
Residential homes in Boise. (Jeremy Erickson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“We offered three people paramedic jobs over the past six months, and none of them could take it because we couldn’t find them housing,” said Don Gardner, emergency manager and ambulance director for Clearwater County.

Bradbury, who checks the housing market often, is also finding nothing, she said. “What there is is very substandard housing for $1,000 a month. Normally, substandard housing would be a couple hundred a month.”

Rauer said the percentage of empty homes has dropped by 70 percent and there’s extreme pressure to build new homes quickly. “We’re not keeping up,” he said. “It’s just not happening.”

Prices of empty lots are also skyrocketing. Two parcels of land owned by the University of Idaho were auctioned on July 7, and a press release from the Idaho Department of Lands said they were expected to generate at least $6 million. On July 11, a new press release reported that they were sold for $35.2 million.

In the meantime, people are staying in campers or RV parks. Bradbury said she had heard people were even paying monthly rents in hotels in order to jump on the next open property.

Orofino, Idaho, a small town in northern-central Idaho, has seen a sharp increase in population over the past year. At the Best Western Lodge, the manager, Tanna Zywina, said that no monthly rates are offered, but that occupancy rates were up 25 to 30 percent in December 2020 and January 2021. Other hotels in the area declined to comment.

“COVID really changed our world,” said Bobbi Kaufman, Orofino’s planning and zoning administrator. “I do think it has changed the quality of life. Having to share your space with people, more garbage on the roads, more complaints about the services we don’t provide.”

Local residents say that they are seeing a buildup of trash on the highways and hiking trails and that they worry about the effects of the newcomers on the environment. “Tribal members and local Idahoans live a subsistence lifestyle,” Bradbury said. “We hunt and fish and feed our families that way. Urban people get very concerned with hunting and are moving in and trying to change the regulations.”

A man fly-fishing on Tin Cup Creek near Wayan, Idaho, in 2020. (Jon G. Fuller/VW Pics via ZUMA Wire)
A man fly-fishing on Tin Cup Creek near Wayan, Idaho, in 2020. (Jon G. Fuller/VW Pics via Zuma Wire)

Bradbury said she is also concerned about the impact from recreation. “The incoming people have a lot of toys,” she said. “Motorized toys. UTVs that are basically like little cars that are wide and fast and noisy. You have to constantly forecast what’s going to be the next toy du jour.”

Venetia Gempler, a public affairs officer for Boise National Forest Service, said it’s been difficult to keep up with the influx. “We saw a huge increase in use on the national forest, because that was the place that was open for people to go,” she said. “But on top of that, there was an additional layer of people moving into Idaho, and we’re surmising that the impact we’re seeing is from these new visitors.”

“A lot of our campgrounds were designed many decades ago,” she said, and "can’t sustain" large motorized vehicles like RVs and motorized homes.

The forest service has partnered with other organizations to create a campaign called Recreate Responsibly Idaho. The partnership started as a way to get out information about COVID, but it has since evolved into a general information campaign about how to be responsible when you venture outdoors.

“There’s a big effort to make sure people are putting out their campfires when they leave,” Gempler said. “You might douse a campfire, but is it really out? Do you feel heat when you put your hand over it? These problems stem from people not knowing.”

The Orofino area, along with many other areas in the West, was overwhelmed by wildfires during the first few weeks of July, which were exacerbated by a long heat wave. As of July 12, the forest fires were estimated to cover 2,187 acres.

Gardner, in Clearwater County, is finding that urbanites expect more public services than rural areas provide. He recently had a call from someone asking if the county would remove all the vegetation in their yard to avoid wildfires. “It’s not that easy,” he said. “We don’t do that.”

An open road in Idaho. (Eye/Em/Getty Images)
The wide open spaces. (Eye/Em/Getty Images)

Such expectations have become a constant in Gardner’s job. “I’m trying to tell people as much as I can that just because you pay for trash pickup doesn’t mean you’ll get it. Just because you live on a county road doesn’t mean the road will get plowed,” he said.

Ambulance calls have at least doubled in the last year, and possibly tripled, according to Gardner.

“It’s a combination of an increase in people and the expectations they have for services,” he said. “We’re seeing more senior calls, but we don’t provide pickups for doctors’ appointments.”

St. Germain at the Clearwater economic office says it is making an effort to respond to what newcomers want. She said it's busy creating loops for people driving ATVs that connect to the towns, trying to improve internet connectivity, put in coffee shops and provide more diverse food and tennis courts. “We are trying to be responsive to what people are asking for, but the limitation is always: Can you get land access?”

Bradbury worries about the demands of the new population. As more people come who believe that the city and state should provide those services, more people will vote for higher taxes.

“It’s a clash of cultures, I guess I would say,” she said. “You don’t even need to think of it in a political sense. It’s more of an urban-and-rural disconnect. What some of these people are fleeing, they are actually then re-creating when they get here.”

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