Bruell column: Building partnerships is the way to build homes

Debbie Bruell

Breaking ground just last month, the Wapiti Commons Affordable Housing Community in Rifle is a great example of how collaborative partnerships can generate creative, win-win solutions for one of the most pressing issues facing our county: housing.

Habitat for Humanity of the Roaring Fork Valley is leading the Wapiti Commons project with support from a diverse set of stakeholders. The city of Rifle contributed to the project by waiving $100,000 in development fees, demonstrating how important affordable housing is to the economic vitality of the city. The project will provide 20 new net-zero homes for purchase by families and older adults that live and work in the Rifle community. One unit will be allocated specifically for a city of Rifle employee.

Colorado Mountain College will contribute to the project while also advancing its workforce development program. Students will learn construction trades by working side-by-side with building professionals on-site at the Wapiti project.

Habitat’s collaborative approach is effective and inspiring, although their scope is limited. Fortunately, a new local group is working on a similar approach to our housing crisis, but on a broader scale — by bringing together the municipal and county governments from Parachute to Aspen into one nonprofit organization. The goal of this Greater Roaring Fork Valley housing nonprofit would be to help people find affordable and attainable housing near their place of work. They envision partnering with large employers in the area — including school districts and hospitals — to develop housing that would give priority to these desperately needed employees.

While the Garfield County commissioners declined an invitation to join the housing coalition at their March 21 meeting, I echo the March 28 Post Independent editorial in urging the commissioners to reconsider.

Commissioner John Martin’s view that, “We need to build our economy before we build more houses” flies in the face of the current reality of his constituents. The cost of renting or owning a home has increased dramatically in recent years; the current stock of attainable housing is extremely limited; and our teachers, hospital employees and other essential workers are struggling.

The lack of affordable and attainable housing is also making our county less attractive to new businesses, contributing to the growing congestion of our highways, and impeding our schools’ ability to recruit teachers as well as hospitals’ ability to find staff and business-owners’ ability to hire workers. The high cost of housing is eating away at people’s discretionary income, which means less spending at local businesses.

I agree with the commissioners that we need to bring more good-paying, reliable jobs to our county. But we need to do that while at the same time working to address our housing crisis. Attracting new businesses to the county or helping current businesses grow requires that there be housing for their workers — just as retaining and attracting young, professional families to our county requires the availability of child care. Housing, jobs, child care, transportation … every piece of our economy is interconnected, and we can’t wait for one issue to be solved before addressing the others. Joining the housing coalition would help us make progress on a major piece of this economic puzzle.

By participating in this broad regional partnership, we would be much better positioned to leverage resources than if the county continues to operate in isolation. Private and public funders tend to fund regional approaches because they know from experience that it is the best way to reach smart, sustainable solutions to housing issues.

The state of Colorado will soon be awarding $450 million in grants and low/no cost loans for new affordable housing projects. All too often rural Colorado is left out of these kinds of funding streams, and it’s time for us to fight for our fair share. A Greater Roaring Fork Valley coalition will be well-positioned to earn some of this funding.

In other parts of Colorado, forward-thinking county governments are making progress by working across jurisdictional boundaries and connecting with a variety of private and public entities to address shared concerns. Bringing together child care providers, the community college, and the business community, the Eagle County commissioners spearheaded the county’s Early Childhood Provider Support Program, which has increased the availability of child care in their county significantly.

Summit County commissioners have made great progress in the area of wildfire safety by bringing diverse stakeholders together into the Summit County Wildfire Council.

Commissioner Martin’s view that “We can take care of ourselves” is not a strategic approach and means that Garfield County will miss out on valuable opportunities. In today’s world, making forward progress for our community requires building connections with our neighbors. It’s time to let go of old resentments and recognize all that we have to gain by sitting down at the table with folks across our region and strategizing solutions that would benefit us all.

Debbie Bruell of Carbondale chairs the Garfield County Democrats.

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