EDITORIAL: Homeless in Pagosa, Part Five

Read Part One

“A longtime associate of President Trump’s family, who organized golf tournaments on the President’s courses and planned his son Eric’s wedding, will soon oversee billions of federal dollars as the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s New York and New Jersey office…”

‘Trump Family Wedding Planner to Head New York’s Federal Housing Office’ by Yamiche Alcindor & J. David Goodman, New York Times, June 16, 2017

With wedding planners now heading up federal housing programs, and with the Trump administration’s proposed budget cutting key Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs… proposing the complete elimination of the venerable Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program… and chopping another $6.8 billion off last year’s already-trimmed HUD budget, in the very midst of a nationwide affordable housing crisis…

… we should be able to see the writing on the wall. Under the current administration, local communities will have to step up and address their own housing crises — locally.

The draft 68-page Archuleta County Housing Needs Study, written by Denver-based Economic & Planning Systems (EPS) and released late last month, seems to acknowledge some of the current attitude in Washington DC. Nearly all of the recommendations included in the study are actions that can be taken locally, by our local governments, including:

1. Inclusionary housing regulations

2. Local tax increases

3. Utilization of excess government-owned land

4. Changes to key housing and development regulations

5. Fee waivers and deferrals

6. Development of local land or housing trusts

7. Development of one or more local housing agencies

The only recommended action proposed in the draft study that involves the federal government is a potential Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) project, similar to the Hickory Ridge project that was built on the north side of downtown Pagosa ten years ago. LIHTC projects typically take several years to obtain approval and funding, and the funding — provided through the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority (CHFA) — is highly competitive. These apartment projects are also typically relative large in size, usually 50 units or larger, and are usually built by big-city contractors who have specialized in this type of project.

One topic which received only a cursory mention in the draft study is “tiny homes.” We’ve written previously about tiny homes in the Daily Post; you can read one such article here.

Tiny homes are often built on a wheeled trailer, making them eminently portable — much more portable than, say, a mobile home — and the living area typically measures between 100 and 200 square feet. But other types of tiny homes are designed to be set on a foundation, and may be as large as, say, 400 square feet.

Some people find it shocking to think that an individual, or couple, or family, would try to live in a 200 square foot space, considering that the average newly-constructed American home is about 2,600 square feet — 13 times larger. Only a few Colorado communities have made the decision to encourage tiny homes; most towns and cities in the state seem to be taking a “wait and see” attitude.

Apparently, the consultants at EPS are among those who see tiny homes as an impractical solution to a worsening housing crisis. They included only 131 words on the subject, concluding:

While a smaller, more community-oriented housing model based on tiny homes is beginning to be explored for special populations such as transitional homeless housing, it has not been shown to be a viable model to pursue for general housing affordability.

This statement seems to contradict the opinion of the International Code Council, the group that publishes the International Residential Code (IRC). The ICC approved an appendix to the 2018 version of the IRC which sets, for the first time, building standards for tiny homes, including specifications for ceiling heights, stairways, and so on. The standards were written specifically for houses smaller than 400 square feet, and can be embraced by local governments through a simple adoption process.

Alternative housing advocates celebrate the adoption of a “tiny house” appendix by the International Code Council in February 2017.

2018 marks the first IRC version to address these very small dwellings with a model building code, and it may provide a major boost for the loosely knit coalition of builders and homeowners advocating a lifestyle based on downsizing and simplifying.

That loose coalition has some representation here in Archuleta County, although we have seen no indication, yet, that our local governments are willing to view tiny homes as part of the solution to a serious housing problem.

In a previous installment of this article series, I wrote about the disappearance of SRO (Single Room Occupancy) hotels in some of the nation’s larger cities. These “residential hotels” typically rent out rooms measuring about 80 square feet. The rooms include no kitchen or bathroom; instead, a shared bathroom is located down the hall, and meals are presumably purchased as take-out from a nearby Chinese restaurant.

I have some familiarity with SRO living — my first “home” after dropping out of college was a tiny room in a residential hotel in Juneau, Alaska.

SRO dwellings have been, historically, an important housing type for low-wage workers, the elderly, and people otherwise living in poverty, but the “Urban Renewal” movement of the 1970s and 1980s managed to demolish an estimated 1 million of these SRO units — without replacing them with any kind of comparably affordable dwelling type. The people displaced often became homeless, with nowhere to live except on the streets.

As far as I can tell, Pagosa Springs has never had a significant number of SRO hotel rooms, although it’s possible the Metropolitan Hotel, above the Liberty Theater, once offered that type of housing. But we might consider the historical popularity and importance of SRO hotels elsewhere in America — and the fact that a 160-square-foot tiny home is twice the size of a typical SRO dwelling unit.

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that the Trump administration wants to reduce federal support for low-income housing solutions, and I suggested that — if we want to address our housing crisis here in Archuleta County — we will have to take the bull by the horns, locally.

There are two basic approaches available to us, to encourage affordable housing.

Public, and private.

The new (draft) Archuleta County Housing Needs Study is focused on the “public” approach. That approach could involve the actions enumerated above: new or higher taxes… new and more onerous requirements for subdivision developments… donations of excess government land… fee waivers and deferrals…

The “public” approach often unfolds at a glacial pace.

The “private” approach is exemplified by the “Tiny House Movement.” The folks promoting and building — and living in — tiny houses are folks looking to reduce their environmental impacts, eliminate their dependence on big banks and mortgage lenders, and generally simplify their lives. This partial solution to a serious housing crisis does not require new or higher taxes, nor does it require new and more onerous requirements for subdivision developments. It requires that our government officials — and the rest of us — let go of our preconceived ideas about what constitutes safe, affordable housing. It requires that we allow the people now living in cars and tents in our community to obtain humane shelter.

At the moment, a tiny house is illegal in Archuleta County. An enterprising individual or family cannot legally build, or live in, a tiny house in our community. In spite of the laws and regulations, however, people are already living in tiny houses, and local governments are simply looking the other way.

Looking ahead to the next five years or so here in Pagosa Springs, I can see a couple of possibilities. We can legalize “alternative housing” — or we can watch our local economy struggle as the working class slowly moves away, looking for reasonable housing in another community.

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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.