EDITORIAL: Shelter from the Storm, Part One

WHEREAS, the Town Council desires to encourage development of low-income housing, moderate-income housing, and affordable employee housing to address a serious and growing shortage of available housing units within the Town…

— From ‘Ordinance 878, Town of Pagosa Springs

A light dusting of snow in downtown Pagosa over the past weekend felt somewhat like a tease… like Mother Nature is still fooling around, and not really serious yet.

But still… it gave us hope that she intends to blanket the nearby San Juan Mountains — eventually — with the precious white stuff, and insure that our creeks and rivers are filled to brimming come summertime.

We know she’s fickle. We understand her fondness for keeping us guessing.

Archuleta County escaped disaster back in 2002, during a previous drought, when the Missionary Ridge Fire in neighboring La Plata County was headed our way from Durango, burning 72,000 acres of forest and destroying 46 homes. The fire burned itself out just as it started across the county line into Archuleta County.

Good thing, too, because our little town needs all the homes we can get. It’s something there’s just too little of, here: housing.

On Thursday evening, the Pagosa Springs Town Council was presented with Ordinance 878 — a proposal composed by Town Manager Andrea Phillips and Town Planning Director James Dickhoff that attempts to address the cost of residential construction within the town limits.

You can download the proposed Town ordinance here.

Those of us who’ve been following the deepening housing crisis in Archuleta County understand that local government regulations and fees have played a role in the rising cost of housing. Some of those regulations have resulted from the adoption of the International Building Code document known as the “IRC” — the International Residential Code — as well as from additions to the land use codes authorized by the Pagosa Springs Town Council and the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners over the past several decades. The rules are well-meaning. They’re aimed at making sure houses are built with safety concerns in mind. They’re also aimed at establishing a certain “aesthetic standard” so that Pagosa Springs looks like a reasonably affluent community. (If you don’t look too closely.)

We don’t want this place to look like a dump. We don’t want to look the way Pagosa looked in the 1960s, for example. But it costs money to look affluent. A lot of money.

As the Town staff noted in Ordinance 878, we have a “serious and growing shortage of available housing units within the Town…” We don’t currently have a shortage of million-dollar homes, however. The homes that display obvious affluence… of those, we probably have enough.

No, we have a shortage of “low-income housing, moderate-income housing, and affordable employee housing…”

The local regulations are only part of the problem, however. Another key problem is that Americans believe that housing should be an appreciating asset, and that in a “healthy” economy, everyone should be able to sell their home (and land) for a higher price than what they paid when they bought it. That’s what has been happening, here in Pagosa and everywhere in the U.S. The cost of housing has been going up. And up.

Since 1970, the wages paid to the ‘average American worker’ — adjusted for inflation — have actually decreased, according to some economic studies. The ‘average American worker’ actually had less purchasing power in 2014 than they had 40 years ago. Adjusted for inflation.

The cost of the median price home in Denver, for example, increased during that same period by roughly 60 percent. Adjusted for inflation.

Can local government do anything about this problem?

The Town Council discussion around Ordinance 878 lasted about 57 minutes on Thursday night, and resulted in the proposed rules being tabled, to allow the community to provide feedback. The draft rules had been formulated by staff, at the request of the Council — but without significant input from the Town Planning Commission, nor from the County Planning Commission, nor from the two affordable housing work groups appointed by the Town and County, nor from the real estate community, nor from the development community, nor from the numerous working class folks who currently struggle with local housing costs.

In other words, the Town staff hadn’t run this ordinance past the community’s stakeholders, prior to placing it before the Council. This was rather unusual, considering the way Town staff has generally operated lately.

The proposed regulations begin with a somewhat complex (and perhaps confusing) set of definitions, outlining the types of housing the Town might try and encourage:

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT ORDAINED BY THE TOWN COUNCIL OF THE TOWN OF PAGOSA SPRINGS, COLORADO, as follows:

Section 1. Amendment of Chapter 21, Article 12, Section 12.5. of the LUDC. Amend Chapter 21, Article 12, Section 12.5. of the LUDC to add the following new defined terms:

a. Affordable Employee Housing. Affordable housing for employees of any local employer.

b. Affordable Housing. Housing for which the occupant(s) is/are paying no more than thirty percent (30%) of his or her income for gross housing costs, including utilities.

c. Area Median Income (AMI). The median household income for Archuleta County, as estimated by the most recent U.S. Census Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates.

d. Attainable Housing. A housing unit that is affordable for households earning between one hundred and one percent (101%) and one hundred and twenty percent (120%) of AMI. Attainable housing is a sub-category of moderate-income housing.

e. Housing. A housing unit that is affordable for households earning between eighty-one percent (81%) and one hundred percent (100%) of AMI. This term is synonymous with moderate-income housing.

f. Low-Income Housing. A housing unit that is affordable for households earning between sixty-one percent (61%) and eighty percent (80%) of AMI.

g. Moderate-Income Housing. A housing unit that is affordable for households earning between eighty-one percent (81%) and one hundred percent (100%) of AMI. This term is synonymous with housing.

h. Very Low-Income Housing. A housing unit that is affordable for households earning between zero percent (0%) and sixty percent (60%) of AMI. Very low-income housing is a sub-category of low- income housing.

Several members of the audience on Thursday evening had urged the Council to allow further consideration of the ordinance, by the general public. Maybe the rules could be made more effective, by taking suggestions from the broader community?

Maybe we don’t actually need eight different definitions of affordable housing?

The Council ultimately agreed to take another month to allow public discussion of the proposal.

Mayor Don Volger clarified the motion to table the ordinance:

“What we’re talking about is getting some more prior to February 6. Our first meeting in February. The Council needs to be prepared to give staff direction on an ordinance to be presented at the second meeting in February. Okay?

“And [the ordinance] is not going to be perfect. It’s not going to be what everybody would like to see. People have got to be able to make specific recommendations, so the staff has the guidance to present a specific ordinance for us.

“So, February 6. We better be ready, because I think we need to move forward, and not kick this can down the road, as has been said a number of times…”

Read Part Two…

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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.