Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Housing Authority presents draft housing plan

BOCC  has questions on commuting, vision and public process

By Cayla Vidmar

The Gunnison Valley Regional Housing Authority (GVRHA) presented a draft housing plan to the Gunnison County Board of Commissioners (BOCC) Tuesday, the beginning stage to evaluate the plan. Although the commissioners didn’t make any decisions, there was plenty of discussion, primarily on the general concepts, rather than the details, of the plan.

A long discussion ensued with plenty of input from the commissioners regarding the vision statement; monitoring short-term rentals; the GVRHA role in affordable housing in the valley; engaging Crested Butte South; living where you work versus commuting; and the difficulty of building affordable housing.

The conversation kicked off with the dissection of the draft plan vision statement. Commissioner Jonathon Houck raised concerns about the phrase “our vision is to support the character…,” saying, “We have an evolving character within the countywide community and in the municipalities. “Often times what we bump up against is, character for a lot of people means it has to look like, be like, exactly like it’s always been. I don’t want a single word within a vision statement to be a club or shield depending on where you stand.”

Cathie Pagano, director of Gunnison County community and economic development, suggested swapping out “character” for “community values,” taken directly from the One Valley Prosperity Project (OVPP), which she noted was compiled from a thorough public process.

“Character has lots of different meanings for different folks,” Houck concluded.

The conversation pivoted to short-term rentals, with Houck saying, “We can’t really talk about housing in a tourism-based economy without talking about the impacts of short- term rentals.”

Commissioner John Messner cited statistics on short-term rentals in Colorado increasing 68 percent in a single year. Houck acknowledged the significant impact short-term rentals have had on the workforce housing issue, and stressed that the draft plan should allow for adaptability and flexibility to future impacts.

GVRHA board member and Crested Butte Town Council member Chris Haver asked if the BOCC was looking for the GVHRA to monitor changes that impact housing and advise on possible solutions. Messner responded that without monitoring and proactive approaches, it’s difficult to get ahead of future issues, and said, “In the next five to 10 years we’re going to see some significant changes, and we need to understand how that impacts workforce housing in general.”

Houck then asked for clarification of the GVRHA’s role in housing, particularly if its focus is development or managing programs for developers.

GVRHA executive director Jennifer Kermode said she does not see the housing authority itself being the developer of housing anytime soon. Willa Williford, workforce housing consultant working with the GVRHA, said the county has the capacity to catalyze development, but it seems the county was seeking to hand off the long-term daily monitoring and implementation of programs to the GVRHA.

Houck clarified that in terms of “development,” he meant not actually building units, but rather weighing all the resources available and evaluating the process so that “We’re getting the maximum opportunity and leverage on the project.”

Williford expanded, saying, “One of the things that seems really clear is that the housing authority could be sort of the keeper of this regional balance of needs and ensuring that projects aren’t competing against one another … for resources … without over-engineering it, but being the air traffic control on that.”

Crested Butte South then came into the fold, with Williford bringing up how to engage Crested Butte South with affordable housing, saying there’s been discussion but no existing inventory. Commissioner Phil Chamberland jumped in, saying it’s a good time to engage Crested Butte South on the issue, because of the development of the commercial area and the potential for residential opportunity there.

“The typical emerging theme, not specific to this community, you see all the time is ‘This is great, we love housing, but whoa, we’re not sure if this is the right place to do it,’” Houck said. Messner added that all the jurisdictions, from Mt. Crested Butte to Crested Butte South are “fighting within the elements and they’re all fighting the community character question.”

Williford acknowledged the value of a unified vision to overcome that issue, but noted it’s not easy work.

Commissioner Houck then said, “The elephant in the room is, as a community, and all up-valley/down-valley communities deal with this, no one wants to get into it because it’s messy and tends to be an us versus them [issue], but at some point we have to cross that all-important question of will people live where they work, or are we going to use transportation to link people to where they work?”

Williford said, “It’s going to be both,” and Houck noted “It’s not that cut and dry, but that’s typically one of the things up valley and down valley communities hedge up against … it’s that concept of what are our core values.”

Chamberland said, “I think people should have the opportunity if they want to live where they work to be able to live where they work, which means we need to create housing where the jobs are. We just have to create the infrastructure so that the decision is not left to random happenstance, but is their decision.”

Williford said, “It probably goes back to our guiding principles, that commuting is part of the solution but it’s not the entire solution.”

On the topic of public process, Houck asked “where are we willing to go on density, where are we willing to go on different land uses, and also how willing are we to, over time, grow into acceptance or comfort over what initially seems uncomfortable?” He explained that initially Anthracite Place, the three-story apartment complex next to Clark’s Market, was met with a lot of resistance from the public, but is now considered a win for everyone. Houck then asked what the tools are to “get us through those choppy waters.”

Houck explained elected officials are currently experiencing those choppy waters with The Corner at Brush Creek proposal, and they will likely experience it in the future. He noted that the community should always be involved and transparency is necessary, but there’s also a reason for the housing authority and elected officials.

The discussion flowed again to the obvious desire from all communities to solve the workforce housing issue, but then, when the rubber meets the road and real projects come down the pipeline, they’re met with resistance. Houck said the One Valley Prosperity Project was the tool to weigh community values against housing projects.

Messner replied, saying “What made the One Valley Prosperity Project successful, in my opinion, was that it was comprehensive in its approach to bringing different stakeholders together that are not just elected officials.” He explained that it’s critically important to understand need and potential solutions by bringing a bigger group of stakeholders that includes major employers, and downtown district businesses to the table.

“All of sudden we’re hearing these folks saying ‘Listen, you’re not hearing our needs, you’re not seeing what we’re going through, you’ve got blinders on as elected officials,’” Messner concluded.

Kermode added the need to inform the public about the difficulty of making affordable housing projects a reality. “We get comments all the time of ‘Just lower the price of the home, or just build another Anthracite,” she said, explaining that those things don’t happen easily.

Messner and Houck added the difficulty of building homes to the level of energy efficiency needed in the county, and balancing that with the need for developers to make a profit. Houck noted, “We want to be energy efficient and thoughtful about design, but there’s a cost driver, too.”

Messner added, “In private-public partnerships there has to be a level of profitability for the developer.”

At the end of the meeting, Houck asked at what point the GVRHA will officially support a project, noting that in the “us versus them” nature of the current housing discussion, people are taking the GVRHA support, or lack thereof, and manipulating that position based on which side of the issue they’re on. Kermode said it was likely something she would have to take to the board.

One detail the plan includes is that Gunnison County “will increase the availability of housing by facilitating the construction of 200 new affordable units,” by December 31, 2021.

The GVRHA’s goal is to have the final draft at the end of October, and a final plan that the GVRHA board can adopt in either this December or January 2019. Kermode writes via email that there may be another public engagement meeting after the draft is completed, but one is not currently scheduled.

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