RE1J school district considers housing plan

Open house in CB on March 5

By Kendra Walker

The Gunnison Watershed School District (GWSD) school board is considering how the district can be more involved with housing opportunities, as it looks for ways to increase its staff recruitment and retention. 

Last year, the board began working with housing specialist Willa Williford to assess the housing needs of the district’s staff and to develop a high-level housing action plan outlining how the district might move forward in the affordable housing scene in the Gunnison Valley.

Superintendent Dr. Leslie Nichols explained that the plan is intended to help guide the district when approached by potential partners in the community about housing collaborations and opportunities. 

Williford said the plan outlines the district’s housing goals, price points, locations, types of housing and employee needs. “That way we can say, this is what we’re looking for, and it narrows the universe of things we can talk about.”

Williford said a working group was formed in October and has met regularly to work through goals, guiding principles and tools outlined in the plan. During the February 12 school board meeting, Williford presented a draft housing plan for the board’s feedback, with the goal for more discussion and potential adoption in April. 

Williford reminded the school board that the 2023 employee housing needs assessment estimated there could be a need to hire 70-80 new employees through 2028. “To house these employees, 55-70 housing units affordable to employee households are needed,” said Williford. 

However, with the cost of construction outweighing affordability, “Very few employees will be able to afford housing in our market,” said Williford. “Those units would need a subsidy between $50,000 and $300,000 to be affordable to employees.”

Under the guiding principles of affordability, sustainability, diversity, education and efficiency, the plan outlines a goal of 15-20 new employee housing units in five years. “This is both aspirational and realistic,” said Williford. “We realize the need for a lot more than this.”

“Have you done an assessment of the cost to build that many units?” asked board member Mark Vanderveer, doing a quick calculation based on the cost to build per square foot. 

“We’re looking at $20-27 million dollars. I just want everyone to understand that this is a multi-million-dollar endeavor,” said Vanderveer

“Funding, development partnerships and land are tools that are absolutely critical to making this happen,” said Williford. Regarding funding, she said the working group recommends reserving $1.5 million from the school district’s capital fund for housing initiatives over the next five years, exploring certificates of participation and continuing to transfer excess interest income and pilot payments from the general fund to the capital fund.

She noted several housing and development partnerships the district could utilize, including the district’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) and Student Organization Achieving Results for Community (SOAR) programs, Gunnison Valley Regional Housing Authority, Valley Housing Fund, local governments and private sector developers. 

She also identified three district-owned parcels in Gunnison that have potential for housing development, including the old bus barn’s .57 acres at Ohio and 11th, 1 acre on the northwest corner parcel of Gunnison High School and about .5 acres on the southeast corner of the Gunnison Community School parcel.

Looking at the timeline and next steps, Williford explained that the housing plan is still in the outreach phase. “Right now, we’re hoping to align with your budget process for potential funding for this plan in the coming year,” she told the board. The hope is to begin strategic planning this summer and get partnerships in place next year. 

The working group plans to hold two community open houses regarding the housing action plan, one on March 5 in Crested Butte and the other on March 7 in Gunnison. The district will share more details soon. Williford will then bring the plan back to the board for more discussion and potential adoption in April. 

“How many employees are currently in the school district?” asked Vanderveer. 

“Between 350 and 400,” said Nichols. 

“I’m expressing concern that 20 units is the drop in the bucket for what the community needs,” said Vanderveer. “I would like to know more about what the county plans to do to expand housing…for the hospital, for the police, for restaurant workers, for everybody. I’d like to understand the risk of the options. It’s a sizable amount of money to get into this, and a sizable project to manage…I’m concerned about being able to meet the salary needs of everyone who works in the district, not just housing. I really need to understand more to know if getting into the housing business is the right thing to do for the school district.”

Board member Jody Coleman agreed. “I’m concerned about equity among the 300-400 employees. There are those already established in their homes who work their tails off to purchase homes and pay their mortgages. Then there’s the newer employees that may have a different landscape financially to get into a livable space. I want to be fair to every employee…but this is not going to be equitable for all employees.”

She continued, “I’m really hesitant to have the school district get into the real estate business, but I need to be educated. We have a crisis in the valley, everyone knows it, and I think we need to consider other solutions as we work together with the county and the large employers in our valley and use land that we own.”

“Every district that gets into the housing business is grappling with how to make it fair,” said Williford. She noted the GWSD employee survey responses that helped inform the district’s housing needs assessment. “Most employees were pretty sympathetic to the sentiment of ‘My job is better when you can recruit and retain people that support me, and I understand they’re in a different housing market than I was in,’” said Williford. “That’s not universal but it was a sentiment that showed through in those comments.”

“I want to make sure whatever we did, we can do it without risking operational dollars and carrying the debt,” said Vanderveer.

“I don’t see this plan as saying we plan on going into debt by building all these with our own financing,” said Nichols. “It’s driving me to get some kind of vision for what this board supports. I’m truly worried about being able to bring quality educators to the valley…the housing does not exist and so we are big enough to look at being part of that solution.”

The board supported moving forward with the discussion and will consider a draft plan for potential adoption in April. 

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