The Housing Action Team: Housing help must come from all
One of the hottest local topics continues to be how our county and communities can most effectively address the challenge of preserving Eagle County’s middle class by insuring that there is a sufficient range of affordable housing both for rental and purchase for our workforce.
To help with understanding and planning for workforce housing, the Blue Ribbon Housing Commission created The Housing Action Team, the ONLY standing forum where elected officials of the county, towns and school district work and plan together with private sector developers, employers, and nonprofit housing entities, such as Habitat for Humanity, to share information and strategies on creating workforce housing.
We believe that housing is such a vital component of our economic landscape that it’s critical that Eagle County residents hear directly from us about what’s true and what isn’t.
Here are the facts:
1. Community-wide cooperation is a reality. The Housing Action Team represents an unprecedented level of communication between our governments and the private sector. Since the team’s formation a year-and-a-half ago, there has been significant progress developing housing policy. This year, the team helped Gypsum create a first-ever workforce housing program. All of the towns and the largest employers have contributed money towards the team’s efforts. The team developed The Valley Home Source (a one-stop shopping center for affordable homes in Eagle County), which will open this fall.
2. Construction of affordable workforce housing has begun in earnest. The first project coming on line is Stratton Flats in Gypsum, followed by the Sawatch Condominiums, Fox Hollow, and several other affordable, locals-only projects.
The Stratton Flats sales office is now open, water, sewer and roads are under construction and model homes are expected to be ready in early fall. Stratton Flats is a just one example of how creative development ideas are being put to work today.
Gypsum originally approved Stratton Flats as an open-market housing development. It attracted the attention of Eagle County, which wanted to increase our affordable housing inventory quickly. When the financial markets became uncertain about a year ago, the developer faced new challenges in putting together financing. A win-win opportunity presented itself as the developer, Eagle County and the Town of Gypsum all looked at a creative solution that would get housing built and built now.
A public-private partnership was formed: Eagle County invested $4.5 million, and the Town of Gypsum sharpened its pencils and worked to reduce costs and waive fees based on cost-of-service needs. The total savings will help reduce construction costs by as much as $70,000 per unit of which Gypsum’s reduced and waived building fees represent over $10,000 of savings per unit. Of the 339 condos, townhomes and single-family homes, a third will now be sold as free-market units, a third with residency restrictions (no price caps) and a third with price-appreciation caps.
Stratton provides three excellent choices of entry for homebuyers, and will assure local-occupancy and affordability in perpetuity.
There has been some misinformation about the financing for this project and the security of the county’s investment. There is little reason to worry. The financing has been secured, and the project has been funded. The developer is installing infrastructure, and it will have homes ready for occupancy this fall. The county’s equity investment will be returned with interest. Its equity position is second only to the construction lender. The developer doesn’t see a dime of profit until the county gets all of its equity back plus interest.
3. The formation of a county housing authority will not increase taxes. The county’s housing authority is a single jurisdictional (Eagle County only) entity without any taxing powers. Whatever our political views, every member who has served on the Housing Action Team has arrived at the same conclusion: the free market system’s ability to create affordable workforce housing in Eagle County has not worked. From the team’s very inception, its members have been adamant about finding other ways of promoting and developing housing without asking voters for specialized funding. A good start is the increased level of communication and planning now occurring between the public and private sectors.
The county formed a housing authority under state statute to build affordable housing stock. This isn’t unusual: Eagle County is the only rural resort county that lacks a housing authority. Even Garfield County has one. Other communities’ authorities are very active. Grand Junction, for example, has built hundreds of affordable units. A handful of critics have claimed that the authority can raise taxes and condemn properties. Under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, no taxes can be raised without a public vote ” and none are anticipated in the future. The specter of condemnation is impractical. There are many land acquisition opportunities for housing in the county from willing private owners, developers, institutions, and the federal government. Condemnation is expensive and unpopular. It is not a viable or desirable option.
Instead of taxes, the county found a creative way to jump-start future housing by exploring the sale of the Lake Creek Village apartments. If completed as planned, the sale will generate tens of millions of dollars ” cash ” for new housing projects, and the new buyer of Lake Creek Village must keep rents affordable, forever.
As the election season gains momentum, workforce housing will continue to be a hot topic. We strongly encourage candidates and Eagle County voters to take the time to understand the complexity and importance of workforce housing to our economy and quality of life, and to recognize that the level of public/private cooperation and creative problem solving has never been higher.
The Eagle County Housing Action Team is Margaret Rogers, Vail Town Council; Hawkeye Flaherty, mayor, town of Minturn; Ruth Borne, town of Red Cliff; Ron Wolfe, mayor, town of Avon; Jon Stavney, former mayor, town of Eagle; Tom Edwards, Gypsum Town Council; Sara Fisher, commissioner, Eagle County; Brian Nolan, Eagle County School District Board; Tony O’Rouke, Beaver Creek Resort Company; Kara Heide, Vail Resorts; Gerry Flynn, Polar Star Development; Mark Ristow, FirstBank; John Welaj, Habitat for Humanity; and Don Cohen, Economic Council of Eagle County