Eagle County grapples with affordable housing conundrum
The Aspen Times
BASALT AFFORDABLE HOUSING
A building that will include 68 units of deed-restricted housing is under construction in Basalt at Willits Town Center.
The northern part of the building will feature 50 deed-restricted apartment units administered through Basalt’s affordable housing guidelines. The town contributed $500,000 for the apartments. Mariner Real Estate Management, the owner of Willits, is building the apartments to mitigate its affordable housing.
The southern part of the building will feature 18 condominiums, 14 of which will be purchased by the downvalley school district for teachers and other employees. The town of Basalt and the Basalt Fire District will purchase two condos each for their employees.
The apartments and condos will be on the upper two floors of the building. The ground floor will be retail uses and there will be a parking garage underneath.
The building will be completed in late 2016 so no rentals of apartments are taking place yet. Information on the progress and process will eventually be posted at http://www.discoverwillits.com.
The Eagle County commissioners got an earful from a crowd of about 70 people from the Roaring Fork Valley who attended a community forum on affordable housing Thursday night.
It became clear during the 2½-hour conversation that the county commissioners will eventually have to make tough decisions on the best approaches to provide more affordable housing. Some members of the audience advocated working with developers to get more housing. Others said the county should focus on finding ways to subsidize deed-restricted housing.
Clark Anderson, executive director of the nonprofit organization Community Builders, said some compromises must be made by mountain communities to coax more affordable housing out of the private sector. Towns and counties must accept higher-density projects to get housing as long as the projects meet other community goals, he said.
“You should say ‘no’ to bad projects,” Anderson said. “But good projects, we need to learn to say ‘yes’ to.”
He urged the county commissioners to look at the big picture when reviewing projects. Not every project will solve every problem, he said, but they can complement one another. He suggested governments must work cooperatively, looking beyond their borders.
Too many good projects die because of NIMBYism — the “Not In My Backyard” sentiment, Anderson said.
“That lack of community support is starting to hollow out the community,” he said.
In the middle Roaring Fork Valley, some classic debates were waged in 2015 over large developments with affordable-housing components. People who have established housing are fighting to maintain quality of life and are opposed to the traffic and congestion of large new projects. People who are trying to get established and developers contend the projects are vital to providing community diversity.
Anderson was among panel members at the forum, titled, “The Affordability Issue: The Impacts of High Housing Costs in Eagle County.”
A lot of the forum was spent quantifying what’s already obvious: The affordable-housing shortage is bad and getting worse in the post-recession economy. Eagle County Housing Director Jill Klosterman said the dream of securing housing is getting more elusive for Eagle County workers. The gap is growing between the median housing price and the median annual wage. The median housing price in Eagle County has soared 17 percent in the last 30 months to $586,250, she said. The median income for a household of four in Eagle County is $86,200.
The gap is even greater in Pitkin County, where the median price of a single-family house is now greater than in 2007, Klosterman said.
Families won’t be able to close the gap. It’s projected that 70 percent of the new jobs in the mountain region over the next decade will have starting pay less than $36,000 per year, Klosterman said.
Some elected officials past and present in Pitkin County weighed in with suggestions different from approving private-sector projects that include affordable housing. Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman said too many developers misuse the term “affordable housing.” They provide housing that’s affordable for the initial buyers or tenants and then spirals out of range for working folks.
Eagle County and other governments need to require deed-restricted housing that is “truly affordable for years to come,” Newman said.
He also said governments in the valley need to be more selective of the commercial projects that are approved.
“We really don’t need more jobs in this valley. We need better-paying jobs,” he said.
Former Pitkin County Commissioners Michael Kinsley and Joe Edwards, who helped launch the county’s affordable-housing program in the 1970s, also advocated for tough government requirements for deed-restricted housing.
Edwards said Eagle County must get rid of allowances that let developers reduce their affordable-housing quota if they provide trails and other “knickknacks.”
“I would get a little tougher about it,” he said.
There was widespread praise for the efforts made by the Summit Combined Housing Authority, a consortium between Summit County and the municipalities there. Voters approved a one-eighth percent sales tax in 2006 to produce revenue for the housing program. It was set to expire this year, but voters recently instituted it for perpetuity with 77 percent approval.
The county also levies a modest fee on new construction to raise funds for its housing program.
Several audience members urged Eagle County to look at similar tools so it can add deed-restricted housing.
The Eagle County commissioners hope to keep up the community momentum and hold committee meetings where residents work on ideas.