Editorial: Get serious on a regional housing strategy

When a town trustee — a well-educated, well-liked woman — can’t find an affordable place to live in the community she serves, it underscores the need start acting in a coordinated fashion to find solutions to our housing crisis.

Carbondale Trustee Katrina Byars’ landlord sold the home she and her teen children had been renting, and the low inventory and high cost of housing led her to couch surfing. The situation may, ultimately, force her to leave town and give up her trustee seat.

Folks, our communities are at risk. Byars’ story is more visible because of her elected position, but the situation plays out repeatedly across Garfield, Pitkin and Eagle counties.

It sharply illustrates the central point of the Post Independent’s “Price of Paradise” series last year:

“In a region where resort prices and rural wages have long created a mismatch for household budgets, it has become increasingly difficult for towns to recruit and retain public safety, education and medical workers, among others. And that, observers say, bodes ill for the health of communities and core quality-of-life factors.”

The resort-area housing challenge will never be completely solved. But to sustain healthy communities, including businesses, we need a new civic will and new level of cooperation to attract and retain people like Katrina Byars — smart, passionate people with ideas and a drive to be of service.

Right now, if our affordability issue is an elephant, our institutions are the blind men of the parable: Each is touching a different part of the beast and trying to figure it out — some may be wandering off in the other direction.

Businesses and governments have a range of different programs and requirements, all operating separately.

We propose that each of these institutions and all of our local governments join in a regional housing council — something like the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority — that shapes a treaty of sorts.

We must understand and agree that we are in this together.

We must disabuse ourselves of a couple of things people say when they want to ignore the elephant:

• We shouldn’t do anything. This assertion typically is accompanied by a memory of moving here 40 years ago, camping for a summer, living in a cabin for a year and having roommates for a while before being able to buy.

This ignores both exploding housing costs relative to pay — and ballooning student debt. Many of our newer residents have tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, which have jumped 76 percent nationwide to nearly $1.2 trillion since the depth of the recession in 2009.

Some of these debt-burdened young or midlife professionals with recent degrees can be our future leaders and business owners. We need them.

• Rifle and Parachute are the solution to upvalley housing issues. No, no, no. This argument often comes from people who can afford to live upvalley and lack contact with the reality that commuting two hours a day steals family time, adds stress and creates public safety risks.

We want people to be able to live as close as possible to their work and schools.

With the combined brainpower of public and private sector leaders from Parachute to Eagle to Aspen, our proposed regional housing council, which we envision as a nongovernmental advisory group, could begin building a strategy from the many ideas for chipping away at the mess we are in.

Private sector and school district efforts could be blended into this bigger strategy that leads to more creative development.

The Post Independent, Community Builders, the Carbondale Creative District and Third Street Center in February held a community forum on solutions. Developers, city managers and other panelists offered several ideas, from encouraging auxiliary units on existing houses, cooperative housing and other approaches.

KT Gazunis, executive director for the Garfield County Housing Authority, holds out the 282-unit Miller Ranch development in Edwards as the kind of public-private partnership that works. Eagle County became a partner in the project and actually made a profit — which it reinvested. The county, school district and Colorado Mountain College contracted for the architect and developer, and units from condos to single-family homes were built with income restrictions.

RFSD is partnering with Habitat for Humanity to build teacher and traditional Habitat housing behind Basalt High School.

These types of efforts can make a difference, but need creative government participation. The regional housing group could develop a planning document with representation from each government in the region aimed at gaining commitments from each.

As it is, local governments looking at only one development at a time — Tree Farm or The Fields in El Jebel, Oasis Creek in Glenwood Springs, etc. — can find a reason to oppose every proposal.

If government bodies have agreed in a broader context to do their part regionally, it could help elected leaders work more closely with developers on the front end to minimize approval costs and stand up to NIMBYs when it comes time to vote.

Do we have the political will to agree to a coordinated strategy? Maybe not.

But what’s the alternative beyond more scattershot development, more talk and more hand-wringing? We’re all ears. Right now, we hear an elephant stomping around the room.

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