Giant affordable housing step taken
La Plata County Regional Housing Authority comes into being

A for sale sign sits in a yard on East Third Avenue. With the recent creation of the La Plata County Regional Housing Authority, buying a home could be within reach for many more low- and moderate-income residents. Among its duties, the multiurisdictional authority may look at ways to offer low-interest loans for down payments./ Photo by Todd Newcomer.

I t's no secret that home prices in La Plata County are getting farther and farther out of reach for the working class. However, some help is also on the way for those facing an increasingly hopeless housing picture.

On July 20, the Durango City Council joined La Plata County and the Town of Ignacio in officially creating the La Plata County Regional Housing Authority. The hope is that the new body will unify the county as it works to address affordable housing. The authority should begin work in the next couple months.

There is no disputing La Plata County's affordable housing problem for Greg Hoch, Durango city planner. "There are some elements in our community that will always argue that the market will take care of affordable housing," he said. "The sheer, cold, hard facts are that the market does not. In order to meet the needs of certain segments of the community, there needs to be some assistance."

The basic problem, Hoch said, is that local people are being priced out of the picture. "What we're continuing to see is a gradual rise in overall home prices to the point where there's a question of whether they'll ever come down," he said. "If they don't come down, we have to ask ourselves where we're going to house our workforce."

La Plata County Commissioner Bob Lieb agreed that reasonably priced housing is a growing concern throughout the county. "I look at it as a major issue in La Plata County, and we're not alone in the nation or in the world," he said. "The problem, obviously, is that there are way too many people who cannot afford the housing to maintain what I like to call a blended community."

It is hoped that the housing authority will be an important step toward turning back time and reopening home ownership to a segment of locals. "Everywhere you look, the housing prices are astronomical," Hoch said. "The community has to do something, and a lot of people felt that creating a housing authority was a good first step, and it is."

Three Springs to mix affordable and attainable

Another sign of affordable housing progress has surfaced at approximately the same time as the recent formation of the La Plata County Regional Housing Authority. As earth movers clear the way for the new Mercy Medical Center and the development of Grandview becomes a certainty, a great deal of affordable housing is coming along with it.

Durango City Planner Greg Hoch said that the city has made it clear that it wants to see the Southern Ute Indian Tribe have a substantial affordable component to its 2,283-unit Three Springs Development. Hoch noted that with annexation, the city has powers to request whatever it wants of a developer.

"When we annex property, the first words out of our mouths are that this city expects affordable housing," he said.

Pat Vaughn is the president of GF Properties, the development arm of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe's Growth Fund. He said that affordable housing is going to be critical to the success of the community that will be centered around the expanded hospital.

"I think it's a key part of the plan," he said. "There are going to be a number of employees in the new Mercy Medical Center that will fit within the requirements and having them live within the community is going to be integral to its success."

Vaughn said that Three Springs will include both "affordable" and "attainable" housing options. The affordable housing will be earmarked for people who make less than 80 percent of the county's median income. Attainable housing options will be available for people making between 80 and 120 percent of the county's median income. All told, an unprecedented 570 new units of affordable and attainable housing will come online as a result of the development.

"It will have a pretty substantial effect, and we're hoping it will be a positive impact for the entire community," he said.

Like Hoch and Lieb, Vaughn agreed that creating a place for the working class will be essential to the value of Three Springs.

"It's just good planning," he said. "I think it's something that's necessary to make that community functional."

The tribe hopes to begin residential construction in the Three Springs development late in 2005.

-Will Sands

Lieb added, "It's not going to end the affordable housing problem in La Plata County, but we're looking at it as a tool."

Work to create the group has been under way for the last two years. The authority was originally conceived as having representation from the municipalities of Durango, Ignacio and Bayfield, all under the umbrella of La Plata County. However, the Town of Bayfield rejected the idea and opted not to participate.

"I'm very proud of the efforts of a lot of people who worked for two years to get this in place," Lieb said.

Addressing Bayfield's reluctance, he added, "Hopefully, now that the other jurisdictions have gotten on board, Bayfield will revisit the idea."

As planned, the authority will take on many roles, ranging from advising local governments to planning and building housing.

"One of the authority's charges will be to make advisory recommendations," Lieb said. "More importantly, it will become highly involved in affordable housing development projects. We need to create more projects for the low- and moderate-income classes."

As a multi-jurisdictional agency, the housing authority would also have an upper hand in going after grant funding and could create a low-interest loan program to help people come up with down payments.

"In my personal experience, the largest problem for most people is coming up with that down payment," Lieb said.

The authority could also pick up where other entities have left off. Interestingly, the Regional Housing Authority came online at the same time the City of Durango hit a road block on its inclusionary housing push. A proposed ordinance would have required that all new developments contain affordable housing.

"The conclusion at the end of it was that we're really not sure that this is the best thing to include at this time," Hoch said. "I don't have any clear marching orders to prepare a public hearing process."

With a mind to the coming creation of the housing authority and the stalled 4 ordinance, Hoch added, "That's why the idea of a housing authority is so appealing. We'll have one entity going out there and taking care of these issues."

In coming weeks, Durango, Ignacio and La Plata County will each submit three candidates for consideration as board members. A search for an executive director will get under way, and office space will be secured. In addition, the three entities will figure out how to fund the housing authority for the next two years. "Ultimately, the aim is to make it self-sustaining and have it paid for by developers' fees," Hoch said.

In coming weeks, the idea of a La Plata County Regional Housing Authority will also settle into existence.

"This isn't a super radical thing. It just took La Plata County a while to get on board," Hoch concluded. "Even if you don't like Aspen or Telluride, the bottom line is that those communities created housing authorities and retained their working classes."





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