School housing project gets boost from Garfield County
November 3, 2009
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Local school officials got what they needed from Garfield County this week, when the Board of County Commissioners agreed to kick in nearly $1 million toward an affordable housing project in Carbondale.
The project, which is to surround two former school buildings at the south end of town, is primarily to house teachers, although employees of the town and the county will be eligible, too.
“We have been desperate for housing at the school district for a long time,” said Roaring Fork School District Superintendent Judy Haptonstall, speaking at Monday’s county commissioners meeting. Haptonstall said the district’s high teacher turnover rate is tied to the fact that teachers cannot afford to buy homes in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood, and are unwilling to live long term in apartments and condominiums.
The district has been working on building housing in Carbondale for several years, as part of a complicated land swap that left the town with the old Carbondale Elementary School itself, but the school district holding onto the land between and around CES and the historic Carbondale Union School building at the corner of Third and Sopris.
It is on that land, which includes an existing athletic field, the school’s bus maintenance facility for Carbondale and a parking lot, that the district hopes to build 120 units, of which 96 are to be subsidized so that teachers and other workers can buy them.
The county agreed to the district’s proposal to kick in $10,000 per affordable unit, for a total of $960,000 spread over three phases that are expected to be built in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
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But the support of the county commissioners was not unanimous. Commissioner John Martin declared he was philosophically opposed to the entire project.
“I’m sympathetic that people need housing,” he told Haptonstall, but added, “I see the role of the schools as education, not building houses. … I see what we’re doing as building government housing for government employees,” which he said is wrong.
But, noted Commissioner Tresi Houpt, Martin at one time supported an affordable housing project in Rifle, in which the Re-2 school district was a partner.
And when Martin shifted focus to complain that teachers and their families have high enough incomes that they don’t need subsidized housing, Commissioner Mike Samson differed with him.
Samson, a former educator from Rifle, said that a starting teachers’ income is not more than $50,000, as Martin described it, but is “less than $30,000, probably,” which results in what Samson termed the “anguish” of not being able to afford a house in the town where one is teaching.
“We’re just trying, as a county, to help our governmental partners, to help us,” Houpt added.
Under questioning by Houpt, county staffers confirmed that the county has a $1.5 million housing fund that originally was to be used on housing projects in Glenwood Springs and then in Rifle, but those projects fell through.
And, she said, the county’s participation should be incentive for other area governments, such as the town of Carbondale, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority and the Valley View Hospital District to kick in some money when they are approached by the district.
“I’m hung up on this,” countered Martin. “Schools do not build houses. They educate young people.”
“But the bottom line is, you have to have teachers,” responded Shannon Pelland, assistant superintendent for the district, arguing that the district will lose in that regard if it cannot provide housing.
The county commissioners voted to go ahead with the contribution, with Martin dissenting.
The money is to come out of the 2010 budget and be deposited with the county’s housing authority, which in turn will be responsible for turning it over to the school district at the appropriate time in the development process.
School representative Chuck Perry said it is likely that the district will not need to draw on the county funds until 2011, if the district’s construction financing goes as planned.
The district officials also agreed with the county’s one string attached to the money – that county money be “the last dollars in,” meaning they are to be held out until after the buildings are finished and then used to pay off loans and other obligations.
And if, for any reason, the project fails to materialize, the county is to get its money back.