Steamboat Springs Gather community leaders to talk about the challenge of providing affordable housing in Routt County and the discussion moves inexorably toward the dormant West of Steamboat plan.
"It's an excellent plan and I think, ultimately, has a very high chance of becoming successful," land use and planning attorney Bob Weiss said this week. "Although it has been slow to be implemented, its vision is an excellent one."
The plan, adopted in November 1999 after a lengthy gestation period, would allow the creation of up to 2,600 new dwelling units over an extended period. Further it would require that one third of those new homes be "affordable."
The boundaries of the plan describe an area just west of the existing city limits of Steamboat Springs.
A key provision of the plan calls for subdivisions that successfully make it through the planning process to be automatically annexed into the city.
There's just one problem. Although the plan has been on the books for nearly three years, nothing has happened. No developer has stepped forward to pursue acquisition of land in West of Steamboat. And no plans to develop market rate homes to subsidize the affordable component of West of Steamboat has ever seen the light of day.
Rob Dick, executive director of the Regional Affordable Living Foundation, says he's attempted to play matchmaker, to no avail.
"God knows we've tried," Dick said. "I've seen one or two developers a week who are looking at one piece of property just west of West End Village. They've all backed away."
The would-be developers look at the numbers, and the requirements of the plan and all reach the same conclusion: "They tell me, 'I really can't make this happen,'" Dick said.
Meeting the challenge
Weiss and Dick were participants in a forum hosted by the Pilot and Today last week. It served as the culmination of an eight-week series examining the current state of the community's ongoing affordable housing challenges. Taking part were representatives of the private and public sectors who have shown high levels of dedication to searching for solutions to the challenge.
Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak, who signed off on the West of Steamboat Plan in 1999, said she believes it is time for the city to revisit one requirement of the plan. It calls for the creation of a local improvement district to generate taxes that would offset the cost to the city of providing services to the new residential neighborhoods. They include services like snow plowing, police and fire protection and street maintenance.
"I think it should go away," Stahoviak said. If the city is serious about creating housing for people who live and work here, it cannot have it both ways, Stahoviak argued. She said the city must revisit the plan and give thoughtful consideration to provisions that may be blocking the development of housing.
Stahoviak said she isn't concerned with a second local improvement district intended to offset the costs of subdivision infrastructure.
Stahoviak was not alone in her feelings.
Weiss agreed the city should revisit the improvement district and look for other ways to stimulate development of the West of Steamboat Plan.
"I'm optimistic about the plan, but it has been stalled," Weiss said. "It needs to be jump started."
Increasing the supply of affording building lots should alleviate price pressure, Weiss theorized. He urged the county and city to engage in direct communication with the people who own the land in the area in an effort to find out what the barriers to development are.
Grading the community
Former city councilman Jim Engelken worked long and hard on the plan. Although he gives the broader community a letter grade of "D" on its affordable housing track record, he defends the city's stance that future development must pay its way.
"I don't think we've done very well," Engelken said. "I don't have faith the free market side will solve (the affordable housing problem). Without money and without land, there's only so much that anybody can do. Given that the community hasn't been willing to come to the table, I guess I'd have to give us a 'D.'"
Engelken said the city has faced a challenge as the growth of sales tax revenues from tourism has flattened at the same time the resident population has grown. That trend has created a budget pinch.
"We simply cannot continue to subsidize growth," Engelken said. "In West of Steamboat, absent a property tax, we can't expect currents residents of Steamboat to subsidize (those new homeowners).
"So, yes, it is a conundrum. There is some validity to saying (the city services tax) is a deterrent."
Randall Hannaway, president of the Steamboat Springs Board of Realtors, agrees that it's unfair to ask existing property owners here to subsidize the dreams of people who would like to move to Steamboat Springs.
"To raise taxes to subsidize people who just discovered they want to move here it's a pretty tough thing to swallow," Hannaway said.
Yet, Hannaway said, without creating more opportunities for affordable housing for people who make their livings in essential professions, the essence of the community is in danger of eroding.
Richard Wille and his wife, Deanna Wille, have been searching for suitable housing they can afford to buy, but haven't met with success. They find they earn too much to qualify for assistance, but not enough to buy a home they feel comfortable starting a family in.
"I don't know what affordable housing is anymore," Richard Wille said. "I have to ask myself 'Is it worth the stress?'"
"We've looked at starting small," Deanna Wille said. "We've looked the 900-square-foot condo with the $300-a-month association fees. We've looked at the $30,000 mobile home with the monthly lot rent.
"I guess the question we have to ask ourselves is 'at what point do we sacrifice our happiness to own a home in Steamboat?'"
Realtor and affordable housing activist Karen Beauvais told the Willes she can provide them with a list of 75 homes for sale throughout the county that fall between $70,000 and $175,000 in asking price. About half of them are freestanding homes, she said.
Beauvais urged the Willes to adjust their expectations and buy a home they can afford with the anticipation they will begin building equity in it almost immediately.
"Get out there and buy something," Beauvais urged. "What are you waiting for? You need to have a nice fat mortgage. You aren't making any money waiting."
Keith Lightfoot of Yampa Valley Medical Center said the cost of housing here represents a significant challenge for his institution. He is responsible for the recruitment and retention of 450 employees.
"It get s a little more difficult each year," Lightfoot said. "Five, six, seven years ago people would jump at the chance to move to Steamboat Springs. In the last three to four years they've been begun turning down the jobs."
At the same time, the hospital has seen its annual turnover rate regularly exceed 25 percent as employees struggle with the cost of living here.
Steamboat Springs School District Superintendent Cyndy Simms said the public schools have been very fortunate to gain voter support for a new tax measure that has created more than $700,000 for to increase the salaries of teachers and support staff.
That fact has allowed the school district to raise its starting salary to the point that only two or three districts in the state can pay starting teachers a higher salary. It has also allowed the district to move the top of its faculty pay scale to $67,000.
Does that mean teachers in the district can afford to buy homes here?
"Yes, maybe with equity (in a home elsewhere and with a working spouse," Simms said. "But it would still be difficult to buy a house here in Steamboat Springs."
Beauvais said forward-looking employers will be rewarded by creating housing opportunities for their employees.
Dick agreed. "Affordable housing is good for business," he said.
He advocated the creation of new mobile home parks where the lots are owned by the occupants.
Lightfoot said the medical center helps its employees with rental housing and permanent housing. So far, 13 of its employees have taken advantage of a housing assistance program that loans them 20 percent of their previous year's salary to serve as a down payment on a new home.
Other ideas that came out of the forum:
n Contractor Bud Rogers believes smaller building lots are the key to creating affordable housing. He is a big believer in families investing sweat equity in their homes.
"You have to be willing to sacrifice in terms of time working evenings (on a new home)," he said. "The government even subsidizes you because you don't have to make payroll and there's no workers compensation tax when you do the work yourself."
n Stahoviak said it's time to think about revisiting the concept of a statutory housing authority with the ability to ask the voters to levy taxes. That was put on hold earlier this year, Stahoviak said, because a committee looking into it became convinced voters would not approve a tax. And without a funding source, a housing authority wouldn't be able to do anything RALF isn't already doing.
"The bottom line is going to the voters for a tax. That will require a very clear definition of how it will work and who will qualify (for housing assistance)," she said.
n Weiss said the community must create the environment that gives developers and contractors the incentive to build the desired housing. He said the issue of affordable housing is really nothing more than an issue of supply and demand. Increase the housing supply, he said, and the price comes down.
n Beauvais called for increased education for prospective homebuyers, so that they understand what it takes to get into a starter home in the Yampa Valley.
To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org