Dealing with the housing crisis
Regional Housing Alliance forwards slew of solutions

SideStory: City takes stab at housing crunch

Construction continues on the upscale La Campanella townhomes north of 32nd Street. Despite a boom in high-end residences lattely, the dearht in local affordable housing persists. However, the La Plata county Regional Housing Alliance has recently launched a five-year action plan to combat the problem. The RHA hopes to provide between 70 and 100 new housing opportunities a year for working class residents./Photo by David Halterman

by Missy Votel

After several years on the drawing board, solutions to the area’s affordable housing shortage are beginning to take shape.

Last week, the City of Durango, La Plata County and the Town of Ignacio sat down to discuss the future of affordable housing in the area and concrete steps that can be taken to get there. The three government entities also agreed to a name change for the agency through which they have partnered on the affordable housing issue.

The La Plata County Regional Housing Authority, formed in 2004 through an intergovernmental agreement, will now be known as the Regional Housing Alliance. Jennifer Lopez, director of the RHA since fall of last year, said the change is meant to eliminate confusion between her organization, a locally funded, quasi state entity, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, which is often affiliated with housing authorities.

“HUD works on a federal level and deals mostly with rental vouchers and has a very prescribed and specific scope,” she said. “But, we’re multi-jurisdictional, and in the state of Colorado, regional housing authorities are seen as separate state entities. We are funded locally and deal with new residences and finding innovative solutions to housing.”

Lopez said the new name also better mirrors the goal of her organization. “Although we’ll still be known as the RHA, we thought ‘alliance’ much better reflected our mission to foster innovative partnerships and entrepreneurial relationships in the community,” she said.

But a new name is not the only thing the RHA has been working on. A year ago, Lopez, with the help of Enterprise Community Partners, a national consulting firm, embarked on a study of La Plata County’s housing needs. After numerous meetings with community stakeholders, from elected officials to builders, business owners, nonprofit groups and workers, they came up with a picture of what needs aren’t being met in La Plata County and what can be done to fix that.

For starters, the RHA defined the group most in need of housing assistance: the working class of La Plata County. “We found that our target audience is people making between 80 percent and 125 percent of the annual median income in La Plata County, or between $30,000 and $75,000 a year,” she said.

According to the study, the biggest need is for homes in the $275,000 range. However, almost no new homes in La Plata County are in this price range and very few existing family-sized homes in decent condition are available in that price range. Further compounding this is the fact that the median home price has risen 104 percent in the last five years, to $325,000, while median income has increased only 20 percent.

“It’s no surprise that housing in La Plata County is expensive,” said Lopez. “But when housing supply and demand were examined in detail, we found a problem of crisis proportions.”

As a result, the group formulated a five-year “action plan” to create more housing opportunities. The proposals include:

• Fair Share Housing Programs, whereby the RHA helps cities and the county draft and administer ordinances that require developers to dedicate a percentage of housing as affordable or attainable.

• La Plata Homes Fund, a trust funded by donations, fees in lieu, etc., that will be earmarked for second mortgage assistance and land banking and development.

• Land Banking and Development, using money from homes fund to buy strategic parcels or help developers finance them in exchange for affordable/attainable housing.

• Homebuyer education program, to prepare prospective homebuyers for home ownership through classes, credit counseling and down-payment assistance.

• Public education on RHA agenda in implementing action plan, which may include annexation, providing infrastructure, encouraging green home design, adopting Smart Growth principles and preserving existing affordable housing.

Lopez said the action plan culminates several months of behind the scenes work poring over housing policies from other municipalities, forming a board of directors, securing funding and getting the various government entities on board.

“It’s been a really insane year, but now we know what we’re doing, who’s involved and what it’s going to cost,” said Lopez. “We are finally a full-fledged service agency to help buyers, governments and builders.”

Despite the recent completion of the action plan, Lopez said her agency has already made in-roads in a few areas, specifically Three Springs and Durango Mountain Resort. She said as part of the approval process, Three Springs was required by the City of Durango to provide 25 percent of its homes as attainable or affordable, a total of 417 residences. However, with no specific policy in place, there was no way to administer the agreement, she said. “We had to come up with a whole administrative process with Three Springs,” she said. “We’ve been working on it for six months and expect to present it to City Council for approval on Oct. 30. It’s a huge breakthrough.”

As far as DMR is concerned, the RHA just finished a review of the resort’s work force housing needs. Lopez said she anticipates $500,000 will be available for affordable and attainable housing by Christmas and that a mortgage assistance program will be launched in the next few weeks.

Elsewhere in the county, she said the Town of Ignacio is working with the Southern Ute Tribe’s Tierra Group to provide affordable housing there, and that the RHA is working to get the Town of Bayfield involved in coordinated county housing efforts as well.

For 2008, the RHA has requested $419,554 in contributions from its member agencies, which will cover programs as well as the salaries for three full-time employees. Furthermore, the RHA expects to be the recipient of a Rose Fellowship in 2008, which will pay for an architect student on staff to design a housing project in conjunction with local architect, Dean Brookie.

Lopez said she hopes to have the homes fund operational by 2008 and reach its goal of $10 million by 2011, which will finance at least 25 down payment assistance loans a year. Furthermore, in conjunction with Colorado Housing Solutions, the homebuyer education classes will be stepped up, graduating 25 to 30 people a month.

“For a long time, this has been a key piece of the equation, but it was always a chicken-and-egg scenario,” she said. “But with the action plan in place and all this affordable housing coming on, it’s time to get people in line and ready to go.”

Once the plan is fully implemented, she envisions becoming a self-sustaining agency able to create 70 to 100 new housing opportunities a year.

“We’re literally doubling what’s happening right now,” she said. “I feel confident that we can provide 100 opportunities a year