School district continues housing debate

Not ready to adopt housing action plan without more details

By Kendra Walker

The Gunnison Watershed School District (GWSD) board continues to debate how to tackle housing for its teachers and staff and whether the district should get in the housing business in the Gunnison Valley. During their April 8 meeting, the school board reviewed a draft housing action plan presented by housing consultant Willa Williford, but failed to approve it based on varying understandings of what the plan entailed. The board requested more specific details, such as housing types and costs, to revisit the potential approval of the plan.  

Williford has been working with the district for the past year to gather data and potential solutions for a high-level housing plan that would open the doors to providing housing to GWSD teachers and staff. The purpose is to set a proactive, five-year path to address housing challenges and have a framework to engage with prospective partners. The plan includes guiding principles for workforce housing, general goals regarding location, housing types and price points, priority funding sources and recommends pursuing partnerships with developers on and off land owned by the district. 

Williford presented a draft of the housing plan in February that has since been shared with the community through a survey and at open houses for feedback. 

She shared that the input received came mostly from parents and district staff, and that people were very familiar with the gap between employee wages and the cost of housing. 

Williford explained that the majority of GWSD employee households fall under the $75,000 to $100,000 household income category. “That translates to that group being able to afford a home between $265,000 and just below $400,000,” she said. However, she said the median sale price of a home in the Gunnison Valley in 2023 was $827,500.

A 2023 employee housing needs assessment estimated there could be a need to hire 70-80 new GWSD employees through 2028. Superintendent Dr. Leslie Nichols estimated the district needs to fill 10-15 vacancies annually, but stressed the difficulty in recruiting new hires when there is no housing stock available.

The housing plan recommends the district pursue 15-20 new housing units and reserve $1.5 million from its capital fund for housing initiatives over the next five years. It also suggests the district transfer excess interest income and payment in lieu of taxes to the capital fund and request additional funds to support Career and Technical Education (CTE) programming for one-time, unreliable revenue streams.

Williford clarified that the funding sources would not take away from employee wages and raises in the general fund, which Nichols confirmed. “The money we’ve set aside for capital reserves is not in competition for the money we have for salaries.”

“So if we don’t have any money in the capital reserve that’s earmarked for this purpose then we’ll miss out on opportunities,” said board president Tyler Martineau. “I see this as a value without impacting our day-to-day commitments.”

Williford stressed the value of community partnerships, such as identifying property owners willing to provide district employees the opportunity to rent available units, and utilizing the districts’ CTE and Student Organization Achieving Results for Community (SOAR) programs for potential housing construction projects. 

Board member Anne Brookhart made a motion to adopt the plan; however, it failed for lack of a second motion. Some members expressed their concern that the plan did not provide enough details needed to implement potential housing action by the district. 

“For me the plan is a good starting point but not concrete enough for how it’s going to solve the problem,” said board member Mark Vanderveer. “It’s nothing against the plan, but it just doesn’t seem to have a full solution. We haven’t defined the dollars needed to build now, three years from now, five years from now. We haven’t defined the costs so we know what options are viable and what options are not.”

Nichols stressed that the housing action plan allows the district to have conversations with potential partners in the valley interested in working on housing opportunities and dive deeper into those types of questions and discussions.

“If this plan does indicate we have money in the capital reserve, I’d hate for us to be in the position to say sorry we can’t take advantage of that,” Martineau said. “I share your desire for more specificity in this plan,” he told Vanderveer, “but the reason I support adopting the plan is so if we find out six months from now there’s a partner out there, we have something in place that can get that process going.” 

“This is a very complex problem and our community is really suffering with the lack of availability for housing,” said board member Jody Coleman. “I think the solution is going to come in partnerships and with the major employees in this valley…we must work together to provide affordable housing. I don’t know what it’s going to look like but I know we can’t just put our heads in the sand. I do think we need numbers to see what we can use to partner with and how many employees that could serve.”

The board asked Nichols to investigate more details around costs and types of housing. “With the land we have now available, what could be built there and at what cost? How many units could be built and how would we manage those? What’s the maximum number of units we could build with what we have now that would meet the needs?” said Vanderveer. 

He also reiterated, “Unless the community as a whole figures out how to build additional housing at a reasonable price, this will not be solved.”

The board will revisit the housing action plan during a work session on April 22. 

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