Keeping rents affordable comes with tradeoffs
By Mark Reaman
The Whetstone affordable housing project development team spent a couple of days last week gathering feedback from community members on the initial design and philosophical elements of making the neighborhood a livable community. Recognizing that maintaining approximately 230 units is probably necessary to keep rents affordable for a variety of Area Median Incomes (AMIs), the developers gathered information to decide what “trade-offs” might be necessary between amenities and expenses.
Gunnison County is the owner of the property and is working with Williford Housing Consulting, Norris Design, architecture firm Hord Coplan Macht and design/contractor firm Servitas to bring the project to reality. The county planning commission has approved the sketch plan for Whetstone and the idea is to make a formal application for the more detailed preliminary plan phase by February of 2024.
“We need to find the right balance between amenities and costs that residents can afford,” assistant Gunnison County manager for operations and sustainability John Cattles, who is one of the leads on the project, told the group on Friday after the initial Thursday gathering. “What are the tradeoffs between project values? Decisions need to be based on the ultimate experiences of the people who will live there.”
The Thursday afternoon meetings included a variety of break-out groups and different topics were identified to consider. It started with what participants defined as a “home.” Answers varied but centered on residents feeling secure in their housing and having the opportunity to interact with neighbors while making accommodations for things like pets and athletic gear.
On Friday, a summary of what the development team “heard” and what they “know” was presented. Again, making sure residents didn’t have to worry about a rental being sold out from under them or about dramatic increases in rents topped the list, and Cattles said that because this is a public project, those concerns would not be issues.
Still, the project does come with financial ramifications and Cattles made clear rents will play a part in helping to fund the project.
“On the rents issue, we know we need to communicate our plan more and we need to hear concerns from folks. The cost of the project after grants and subsidies will be financed and rents will need to cover the cost of the debt payments as well as the cost to operate and maintain the project,” he explained. “Our challenge is to find the right balance between first costs, ongoing maintenance and community amenities — all of which will have an effect on rents. Profit is not part of the equation in setting rents and our finance strategy is simple; we don’t plan on having an equity investor or short-term debt that will need to be refinanced. Even public projects can be forced into having to increase rents if the project is over-burdened by costly maintenance and programming or if the finance terms require profit to be generated to provide an equity return. We have a plan to avoid those issues, it’s going to be challenging to pull together but we are confident that we have a good plan.”
Participants at the meetings expressed the need for a connection to the outdoors, sustainability, places for pets and gear such as mountain bikes as well as parks for kids and easy transit into Crested Butte. The idea was that Whetstone would be home to people of all ages and incomes. Pedestrian safety was a top priority, and the general feeling was that people would prefer a storage area for gear over an additional full bathroom in the rental units. The ability to connect with neighbors was extremely important and one suggestion to encourage that, aside from a central park and green space area with benches, was to house post office boxes on the property.
Among the feedback highlights was that adequate snow storage space needed to be included in the plan immediately. That resulted in some preliminary suggestions to eliminate some buildings from the initial site plan and relocate the units from those buildings to other buildings by adding a third story. That modification increased some density in a couple structures located in the central part of the subdivision but provided two major spaces where snow could be plowed and stored.
Designers took off the third story on the longest building next to Highway 135 to lower the sight lines from people driving on the highway. Two other smaller buildings close to the highway were redesigned from two stories to three. Crested Butte community development director Troy Russ argued against that move, saying a larger building would act as a trigger to slow traffic. He said it also would house more people closer to the bus stop on the highway and thus more people would be expected to use transit.
Jason Bentley, associate architect with Hord Coplan Macht, said because there is a berm along the highway, the elimination of the third story helps reduce the visual impact of scale and mass of the buildings. “It is an opportunity for creative design aesthetics to be used to screen the big buildings,” added Norris Design principal Elena Scott.
Russ disagreed with that approach as well, saying that instead of hiding the buildings, they should be “celebrated” as a workforce housing community.
Participants suggested that any units that are owned by individuals instead of rented should be spread throughout the community. Cattles said given the finances, most if not all units would likely be rentals at the outset but eventually some might be sold under deed restrictions.
“Not everyone is a sports lover. Not everyone loves dogs,” said Servitas director of design development Alfred Sheer. “We want to create a neighborhood that offers choices.”
“These discussions are all about compromise and tradeoffs,” said Scott. “We need to submit a detailed preliminary plan to the county by February to stay on the timeline and I think we are on the right track.”
The hope is to have a preliminary plan by February 2024 and break ground to begin installing infrastructure on the site next summer.