Urged by county commissioners to be more proactive
By Katherine Nettles
The Valley Housing Fund, formerly the Gunnison Valley Housing Foundation, reported to county commissioners on October 22 regarding its recent name change and strategic planning as it prepares to take a more active role in the future of affordable housing in the valley.
The organization is poised for a funding windfall as a long-anticipated land swap finalizes. But commissioners had some input on the housing fund’s strategies as well, and made it clear that they would like to see more leadership from the Valley Fund in pursuing housing projects, beginning immediately.
Valley Housing Fund board of directors chairman Jim Starr reviewed the fund’s strategic plan for the commissioners, which the organization has developed over the last few months. He said there are three different aspects to the plan, the first being grants. The second is loans to private sector developers who are creating affordable housing, and the third is land banking.
“Our thought is that land is not getting less expensive, so we better strike while we can,” said Starr.
The fund currently has about $850,000 in the bank. “So we’re looking for the closing of the Long Lake land exchange this fall, which will bring us another $2.5 million. That will fully monetize the Butch and Judy Clark parcel that they so graciously donated to the Valley Fund in 2010 when we started,” said Starr. “We’re very pleased with that, and we will be looking at how much of it we think we should set aside for future services and how much we want to make available for projects.”
Starr listed the projects in which the organization has been involved over the years, beginning with Anthracite Place in Crested Butte and including the county-wide housing assessment report, the statewide review and the valley-wide strategic housing plan.
Starr estimated the fund has donated about $470,000 in grants over the years, and $450,000 in loans. Overall, that has contributed to about 145 units of housing.
Looking forward, Valley Housing Fund executive director Darin Higgins said the organization wants to take advantage of the Long Lake funds and statewide affordable housing legislation to make a real impact in the next few years.
County commissioner John Messner wanted to discuss the affordable housing legislation in further detail, and to impress upon the organization that this new opportunity for grant funding from the state is likely to be short-lived.
The Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) is set to channel millions of dollars into its housing development grant fund in the coming years, through three separate house bills that passed during the 2019 legislative session. Exactly how the money will be spent is being developed right now, said Messner, but the plans are to award applicants throughout Colorado between $135 million and $175 million in total.
Messner said he was frustrated by the lack of local movement to apply for these funds.
“I have mentioned this to the [Gunnison Valley Regional] Housing Authority for months now. It doesn’t seem to me that the Housing Authority is interested in building housing,” he said.
County commissioner Roland Mason, who recently joined the Housing Authority’s board of directors, agreed that the Housing Authority wants to continue providing management and deed-restriction–based loan assistance to local entities, but has a lot of questions about being a developer.
Messner said he has no doubt that other non-profit organizations and communities across the state are already applying for the new funding, and that the bulk of it will be spent in one cycle to make a big impact, then sunset in the next few years.
DOLA conducted an assessment of the housing crisis in Colorado and released its findings that Gunnison is the second worst-off county in the state (after San Miguel) in terms of affordability, based on median income versus cost of living. DOLA calculated that while populations in Colorado generally have to make 110 percent to 120 percent of the area median income to achieve a livable situation, Gunnison County requires 156 percent. Telluride requires only slightly more, at 157 percent.
“They [legislators] are saying if you’ve got projects you need to approach them with those now. Now, like today. We are positioned to be in line for this because of the work that we have already done … so my ask to the Valley Fund is, how do we work together to be able to come up with some real projects that are going to get shovel-ready here in the next year and a half?” asked Messner.
He stressed that if the local entities could go to the state Division of Housing and demonstrate that they have a specific project, as opposed to just asking for money, the housing division will engage with them. “But if we’re not ready, they will pass us over,” he said. “And right now, we’ve got nothing.”
“I agree with John that they [the Division of Housing] are going to frontload a bunch of money, starting with this program. And down the road, there will be less money,” said Mason.
“At some point we need to determine what we need to do to build housing and not just talk about building housing,” said Messner.
County commissioner Jonathan Houck added that as part of this legislation the state has to take inventory of land owned by every state department, including CDOT, as well as property owned by school districts and universities. There may be more opportunities in that inventory, he said.
“My point is just that we have this multi-jurisdictional housing plan, but it’s a different lay of the land right now. Projects are not going to be developed with 100 percent public funding… We have do this in a more creative way,” said Messner. “There are certainly other communities like we are, figuring it out… I guess what I am asking is that the foundation jump in and take a stronger role in these conversations and see what we can get in the next year.”
Messner said he would not want to limit this effort to one project, and there are ways to do projects within the unincorporated county and municipalities as well.
“Even though it’s controversial to actually build anything in the north end of the valley that has the words ‘affordable housing’ around it, I think we need to not just focus our efforts on the south end of the valley from an affordable housing standpoint. Because that continues to exacerbate the situation that people are working far away from where they live,” Messner said.
Mason said that more and more workers are now living and working in Gunnison, as pay is equalizing there with Crested Butte in retail and restaurant industries, and he worries that this may take away even further from businesses in Crested Butte to find workers.
Houck said they should also be a stronger voice in balancing land preservation with development to avoid a ring of protected open space lands around each community and creating a transportation problem and lack of development potential. “We can’t create this inability to have housing in or adjacent to the towns,” he said.
Starr suggested that the county and municipalities get together as a group to discuss project ideas further.
The commissioners emphasized that they want someone else to be the coordinator, and the county can be involved, but not as the steering wheel.
“You’ll get more buy-in,” said Mason of the Valley Fund. “Because sometimes if the county is involved then people think the county is overpowering the process.”
Houck said the Valley Housing Fund could be that strong hand to lead the process. “When you can step in and shepherd some of those projects into the development realm, you can really get somewhere,” he said.
“It’s time,” agreed Star. There was discussion about several specific areas that might work well for projects, including a six-acre parcel the Valley Housing Fund has an option to buy, and areas that county Public Works director Marlene Crosby suggested could accommodate new development with established sewage and water infrastructure, such as the Antelope Hills neighborhood in Gunnison.
Mason asked what the Valley Housing Fund’s long-term funding plan will be beyond the initial chunk of money it receives from the Butch Clark legacy.
“We are working on grants from other organizations. That’s one reason we changed our name,” said Starr. “People thought that if we were a foundation, we should be giving money away. We were not ever technically a foundation.” It’s more that they are trying to leverage grants, he said.
Higgins said the Valley Fund is trying to get some units on the ground that can also generate funding. He said they recently lost an opportunity to purchase units they could have maintained as affordable housing. “Seeing that helped my board realize we need to take a more active role,” he said.
“I think the Housing Authority does a great job with the management. They also help with the financing,” suggested Mason of how the two entities can work together.
“But we hear you loud and clear. It’s time to get something together where the entities work together to get some housing,” said Starr.
“And you can count on us to be a super strong partner, there’s no doubt about that,” said Houck.