EDITORIAL: Homeless in Pagosa, Part Four

Read Part One

The colorful charts and graphs that populate the draft Archuleta County Housing Needs Study are typical of the housing needs assessments I’ve reviewed over the past decade, and each graph illustrates, in a statistical manner, one small aspect of a very complex human situation.

For example:

In this graph, above, the consultants from Denver-based Economic & Planning Systems (EPS) have illustrated a rather simple set of historical records: the number and types of building permits issued by our two local governments, for new dwelling units. We can easily discern that, since 2001, the construction industry in Archuleta County has seen a couple of dramatic declines in that time period; the first one happened in 2003, right after the drought and wildfires in 2002. The second even more dramatic decline began in 2007, and was extended (indefinitely?) by the Great Recession, hitting its low point in 2010 when housing starts were about one-tenth of the number we saw in 2002.

The EPS report states:

Since 2013, there have been an average of 107 permitted units per year, indicating a slow but steady recovery in housing development…

When the local construction industry crashed in 2008 and continued to struggle for the next 5 years, a fair number of construction professionals — carpenters, plumbers, concrete workers, roofers — moved away. Archuleta County had once been one of the fastest growing (percentage-wise) counties in the U.S. — but between 2007 and 2012, the community actually lost population. In particular, the community lost much of its construction industry workforce.

The construction companies now building in Pagosa Springs, as the “recovery in housing development” takes place, are struggling to find qualified workers. And the shortage of qualified workers is partly the result of a housing crisis. Workers often can’t find affordable places to live.

So, then… where are these workers living? In their cars?

The 68-page Housing Needs Study provides us with some colorful graphs and some coherent discussion about numbers of housing units and average wages, but it does not get into the human stories now taking place in Archuleta County — the people working two or three jobs in order to pay the rent, the people living in the forest without proper sanitation services, the people who move finally move away due to the lack of housing…

Maybe that’s all we can really expect from Denver-based consultants: some colorful charts and a simplified explanation of a very complex problem.

I supposed every resident of Archuleta County has his or her own unique perspective on the current housing crisis. Some folks, I imagine, view housing — or the lack thereof — as an individual’s personal responsibility. They may feel that the government cannot, and should not, be held responsible for providing shelter to those in need.

Other folks, I imagine, understand that individuals and families often face crises beyond their control, and that the community-as-a-whole can, and should, make sure these individuals and families have a roof of some kind over their heads, and protection from the elements.

If we believe that our local governments can, and should, help solve the housing crisis in Archuleta County, how would that take place?

The draft EPS Housing Needs Study proposes three main strategies:

  • Designate an organizational structure to manage the region’s housing strategies;
  • Create and/or allocate local resources, financial and other, to support housing efforts;
  • Utilizing the new organizational structure and local resources, pursue a new affordable housing development.

The organization suggested by the Denver-based consultants, to serve as the community’s lead housing organization, is the Archuleta County Housing Authority. This organization was formed a couple of decades ago expressly to manage a 16-unit voucher-funded apartment complex — Casa de los Arcos — on South 8th Street, and over the years, the Authority has had its organizational ups and downs. Currently, the Authority is led by board President John Egan, who also sits on the Pagosa Springs Town Council. Also on the board are former County Commissioner Clifford Lucero and the former director of Colorado Housing Inc., Ray Finney.

From the EPS report:

With an existing organizational structure in place, and the desire of current leadership to expand the organization’s role and capacity, expanding the role of the Housing Authority is a natural first step in a comprehensive strategy to address housing needs. Having a central organization that policy makers, developers, and community members can all look to for leadership and guidance is critical to making progress on affordable housing issues. As this newly empowered organization works to build trust and relationships in the community, there will be opportunities to bring together groups that are currently working separately. Enabling this type of central organization will strengthen the voice of the entire housing community in the region.

The Archuleta County Housing Authority recently unveiled plans to build 8 more affordable housing units on its existing South 8th Street property, and has already won concessions from the Town Council — in the form of a promise to waive certain development fees. The Archuleta Board of County Commissioners fulfilled a request for a $30,000 grant to help fund the planning process for this proposed development.

What is not yet clear, regarding this particular development proposal, is the ongoing funding mechanism. The 16 existing apartments are reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) through the Section 8 voucher program. Several people involved in affordable housing have told me that HUD is no longer issuing Section 8 vouchers in southwest Colorado, unless the applicant is disabled, or a veteran. If Casa de los Arcos plans on getting reimbursed by Section 8 vouchers… for the additional 8 units they’re planning… they might want to think twice about that.

I presume that the Housing Authority would seek additional government funding from both the Town and County — if they are selected as the community’s lead housing organization.

Beyond the idea of having a central organization, the EPS study recommends some (vague) policy changes at the Town and County level, and then gets into the idea of “public land dedications” and “financial tools.”

They even provided a convenient chart showing the tax increases we could put in place.

I’m not sure “new taxes” are the key to solving this crisis. What we probably need are “new ways of thinking.”

Read Part Five…

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Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.