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Eagle County: He wants to find you a place to live

Melanie Wong
Vail, CO Colorado
Kristin Anderson/Vail DailyManaging director for the county's housing and development department Alex Potente stands in front of the Seniors on Broadway housing project in Eagle.
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EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Alex Potente is working to change what valley residents call home.

The managing director of Eagle County’s Housing and Development Department has taken on what he admits is one of the most controversial and impactful jobs in the county ” providing affordable homes for locals.

As part of the job, Potente has stepped into the crossfire of developers, economic politics and community need.

With his help, the county commissioners have formed a housing authority, invested $4.5 million in an affordable neighborhood at Gypsum’s Stratton Flats and passed tough housing guidelines for developers, which Potente drafted.

All of those steps have brought criticism, if not outcry, from the development community, some residents and businesses, and others who think government is overstepping its bounds.

Others are supportive ” town leaders and planners have said the county should lead the way in housing, and that the county is taking significant steps to alleviate the “housing crisis.”

Potente has taken on the job with vigor and intensity ” the guy lives and breathes affordable housing, one county official said.

Potente is an attorney by training, with degrees from University of Chicago and Harvard Law School, but he said he has always had an interest in housing dynamics.

Q: So why housing? What interested you in the subject?

Alex Potente: I’ve always had an interest in housing stock. My third-year paper in law school was on rent control in Boston’s housing market. I’ve done housing litigation in the San Francisco Bay area. Primarily, it was something that was needed when I arrived (at the county). I saw it as a chance to do some public service.

Q: So what’s your take on the county’s housing situation?

AP: Rural resort communities have pressure on for-sale housing stock that is disconnected with community wages. The appreciation in homes outstrips what people earn. The houses built are not being built for locals.

You get a movement downvalley instead, and as you run out of room downvalley, the problem becomes acute. When median home prices in Eagle and Gypsum start pushing up to half a million, people taking jobs as teachers, firefighters, framers and lawyers can’t afford to live here.

Q: The county has taken some pretty aggressive, hands-on approaches to providing workforce housing. What would you say the county’s housing philosophy is?

AP: We want to try some different approaches. We don’t have all the answers, but we have some models that will work, such as Miller Ranch ” we own the land, and either we or in conjunction with a developer will build on it.

Either that or we can be equity partners with a developer on a project, like with Stratton Flats.

Some say the solution is that the free market will take care of itself by building more (homes). It may work in Phoenix and Albuquerque, but it can’t work here. Builders have huge incentives to build very high-end homes. Even if you are trying to build affordable housing, the trend is toward the high end.

Q: Where would you like to see county housing in 10 years?

AP: My hope is that there will be a comprehensive plan (among the county and all the towns). The county is only one actor among many. The key to land use like this is to have everyone working in concert with one another.

We’d like to have an affordable housing community in each of the towns, so no one shoulders all the responsibility of affordable housing, and so that the people who work in each of the communities can live there.

Q: This is a controversial subject for some people. What kind of reaction have you gotten in your position?

AP: I’ve definitely gotten a lot of criticism. There are people here who are very strong free marketers, but as an outsider without strong party affiliations, I’d say there are some strong market failures. Profits are made on high-end homes, and that does not meet the needs of the community.

There’s some ill will toward the county, that it’s sort of the 800-pound gorilla, but that’s not how it is. We don’t want to jam concepts or solutions into the towns’ spheres of influence. That (attitude) really tears at the fabric of small-town living.

It’s a mixed bag. There’s plenty of support, too.

Q: What are the best things about living in Eagle County?

AP: I think the sense of community is fantastic, and I think the pace of life in manageable. I like being to ride my bike to work.

Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 748-2928 or mwong@vaildaily.com.


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