Housing thoughts: A possible tax, a slick campaign, and an opportunity

The development team for the Corner at Brush Creek seems to be making a push for public support before the next public hearing on the matter, scheduled at the county courthouse for May 4. Local residents are getting inundated with a slick ad campaign through the U.S. mail and social media. Spending time and money on high-end, glossy countywide mailings and Facebook and Instagram messaging for a project that we understand has little financial profit margin built in is…interesting. The question being raised on the street right now is, ‘Is the project about the money, the fight or the cause?’ It could be some of each. And frankly, the support being sought in this campaign is one that 99 percent of the people in the county can get behind. Yes, Gunnison County needs more housing. The debate is beyond that question and now centers on how and where.

A group of locals is again publicly asking the owners of a couple of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to realize the potential end result of their lawsuit against Crested Butte  if they win their appeal (see their letter on page 5). While we were a bit surprised the town won the first round of court rulings on pretty much every point, I too have pointed out the ramifications of what could happen if the ADU owners prevail. It could hollow out a major core of workforce housing that keeps people living in town. We won’t like it and frankly, I don’t think the ADU owners will like it either when there is no one around to take their dinner order or weed the garden. As usual, the law of unintended consequences comes into play.

A discussion during last week’s Gunnison Valley Regional Housing Authority was basically a tortoise and hare debate over how to potentially spend public affordable housing funds that might be raised if voters approve a ballot measure this November.

Crested Butte community development director Michael Yerman advocated asking the voters for a reasonable amount of money that won’t push business property taxes over the cliff. He then suggested strategically using the money to slowly and deliberately set up projects that attract housing. For him, that primarily meant addressing what he called “horizontal” costs. Those are things like roads, easements and utilities. Those items are the infrastructure that every housing project needs but that no one truly appreciates.

There was some support for his direction but a few people on that board felt if voters are going to choose to raise their taxes, then it is best to end up with a finished project that puts workers in houses quickly.

The problem is that at a new 1.5 mill levy, the tax would bring in about $880,000 a year and that’s not enough to end up with a ton of actual housing right away. A block of infrastructure runs between $600,000 and $800,000.

Yerman argued that it would be best to knock off a project every year and set up the infrastructure to attract a stream of other projects. He said as a planner he could look years into the future and taking the deliberate road would pay off over the long haul. Going for the “big splash” may be sexy but it is not always the most productive.

Case in point: The “big splash” project two miles south of Crested Butte feels more like a belly flop right now unless things continue to change. And they could change more. Think about it: If the developer is being forthright and needs the big density to pay for the infrastructure costs, that issue could be eliminated if public money goes toward that infrastructure. Then an affordable housing project at that location that works for the entire community could actually be accomplished in a strong public-private partnership. It goes back to taking that time-out I keep harping on. The county commissioners can step back and take the time to figure that one out and then attack the infrastructure for the 17 acres in Mt. Crested Butte and then do the same for a plot of land in Gunnison.

The town of Crested Butte has slowly made inroads into affordable housing and over the years it has paid off with the best program in the valley that combines incentives, regulations, taxes and a variety of opportunities from private and public rentals to deed-restricted ownership. That did not happen overnight but instead has taken literally decades.

The Housing Authority board will be depending on the valley’s Housing Foundation to “sell” the proposed tax measure. Being able to “sell” the tax measure will take more than a slick PR campaign. Those sometimes backfire with people. Getting an affordable housing tax approved will take a real plan with attainable outcomes. The status of Brush Creek is also a legitimate question that will be on voters’ minds when it comes to pulling the lever in the voting booth.

So, overall, taking a time-out to figure out the win-win with the Brush Creek parcel and then taking a solid but deliberate approach to potential workforce housing projects throughout the valley seems to be the best road right now to make a difference for the future.

—Mark Reaman

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