Steamboat Springs Don't let the numbers fool you. The process of establishing a housing linkage program relies on a series of seemingly scientific equations to come up with the number of employees that must be housed by their employers but the decisions that are getting made are heavily political.
Housing linkage will not solve the affordable housing problem in Steamboat Springs.
The program, however, is designed to make sure the problem doesn't get much worse.
"It won't cure today's housing shortage," said Jane Harrington of the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, who has a great deal of experience with linkage programs throughout the state.
"It's limited to only new employees generated."
Linkage, she added, should be only one tool in a city's affordable housing toolbox.
What makes the program political is the main question it begs: How much of the affordable housing problem in the city is strictly the responsibility of the business community and how much is the responsibility of the community as a whole?
Harrington said that question depends on the "values" of the community, though she did not say exactly what those values are.
The program would require new development to pay for a portion of the employees it generates. Because a new clothing store demands employees to sell the clothes, the employer would be responsible for creating housing for some of his or her employees in that sense, new development pays for itself, taking care of the housing needs of a portion of its employees. That doesn't mean that the owner would have to provide housing for his employees free of charge, but it would mean that he would have to find a way to create affordable housing for the employees.
Different kinds of businesses would be compelled to provide different levels of housing. That part of the equation is called the "employee generation rate."
A retail store would generate 3.3 employees per 100 square feet of development based on the city's draft ordinance.
A residential complex, however, would generate 0.33 employees per dwelling unit.
City Council President Kevin Bennett, who has managed retail shops in Steamboat, said he questioned whether most retail shops really needed 3.3 employees for every 1,000 square feet.
The number, he said, was likely too high and needed to be revisited.
Councilman Ken Brenner also questioned the employee generation rates, noting they ought to be flexible to accommodate different business owners.
Brenner put a particularly telling example to City Council on Tuesday night.
Centennial Hall itself would have supposedly generated about 57 employees based on the employee generation rate, Brenner said.
In fact, the city may be hiring only one or two new people, if any, while the other employees will simply be moving their belongings from City Hall.
While Brenner's estimates would likely not have been accurate, because Centennial Hall is made up of more than just office space, the example showed all of the council members just how important it was to make the ordinance flexible.
In the Centennial Hall example, the city could have negotiated with itself (an amusing scenario) to bring the rate of employees it needed to house down, because of the fact that it was not generating many new employees.
That scenario would likely have also occurred with the new hospital, where many employees simply changed location and the net gain was much lower than the employee generation rate would have predicted.
Council decided it would allow developers and business owners to negotiate the levels of employee generation.
The real political question, however, is the "mitigation rate."
That number decides what percentage of the employees must be housed by the employer.
No jurisdictions demand that new employers provide 100 percent of their employees with housing.
In mountain communities in Colorado such as Steamboat, the highest percentage is 60 percent, implemented in Aspen and Snowmass Village.
Steamboat's draft ordinance suggests a 40 percent mitigation rate, though that number will likely take a good deal more debate to nail down.
The Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association sent a letter to council urging it to revise the draft ordinance, which the chamber thinks is too extreme (and which hasn't been discussed in detail yet by council anyway).
The chamber also wanted the city to undertake a thorough update to the 1994 housing needs assessment study before implementing the linkage program.
Harrington said the program works best when the "stick" of the housing requirement is tempered with a "carrot."
That carrot could mean relaxed density requirements, height restrictions or parking requirements, which would make the project more financially feasible for the developer.
The units would preferably be built on or near the site, according to council members, allowing employees to live where they work.
The question of whether the employees will rent or buy these affordable homes is also a difficult one, given that restrictions that border on rent control are currently a highly contested practice in Colorado, recently getting shot down in Telluride.
The state senate is currently looking at a bill that might loosen restrictions on rent control, according to the city's intergovernmental services department.
How the housing would get created is also an important issue. Owners of new business and residential complexes would have to actually develop housing (perhaps over their business) for their employees or find a way to ensure that housing gets created.
That could include actually creating the units or entering into a deal with another developer to build employee units the city may also end up allowing the business owner to provide cash payments or land in lieu of building actual units.
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