The West of Steamboat Springs Area Plan was
created to aid in the city's affordable housing
problems. We asked Kathi Meyer, chairwoman of the city Planning Commission and a Regional Affordable Living Foundation board member, how the West of Steamboat area will offset costs of affordable
housing in Steamboat Springs and how the city's planning process may promote building in this area.
Q. How big of a role does the West of Steamboat Springs Area Plan play in the future of Routt County's affordable housing problem?
A. It's huge. It really is the long-term solution. The West of Steamboat plan adopted jointly by the city and county in 1999 requires that a minimum of 30 percent of all future growth in this area must be affordable housing. This requirement is called inclusionary zoning, is relatively new and is currently found in only a few Colorado communities. In exchange for this requirement, a developer will be allowed densities that are common within the Steamboat city limits, rather than 1 unit per 35 acres that is currently allowed by Colorado law.
Q. Since the West of Steamboat plan passed in 1999, there has been no development brought through the city planning department. Why do you think there has been a lack of development in that area?
A. Two reasons. First, the city and county are finalizing an intergovernmental agreement that spells out the steps necessary to have any annexation take place. The major point of discussion has been the best option in terms of creating either a special or general improvement taxation district, which would allow for the developer and perhaps the homeowner to participate in the repayment of the infrastructure needed, including roads, water and sewer lines, etc. Using the concept that "growth should pay its own way," this makes sure the financial burdens of infrastructure costs are not charged to existing taxpayers. It may well be that the city and/or county might have to initially pay for or bond the major road or water line to kick-start any development, with the costs paid back by developers in that area, much like was done with the Hilltop Connector road.
Secondly, the plan calls for all of the development to begin immediately west of the city limits. Therefore, new projects immediately adjacent to other subdivisions within the county, such as Heritage Park and Silver Spur, would not currently be eligible for approval of new development at higher densities. When there are a handful of large property owners who control the majority of the land in this area, there is the potential for nothing to happen, until they choose to develop it themselves or sell to a development group.
Q. How can the city planning process promote building in the West of Steamboat area, which in turn will encourage affordable housing?
A. The Affordable Housing Matrix adopted by the city by ordinance in 1999 allows for "fast track review" for any eligible affordable housing project. The matrix allows for the subsidizing of permit, building and tap fees, reduction of landscaping requirements and reduced bonding costs.
Other city policies should be re- examined to ensure there are no unintended roadblocks or development standards that actually increase the cost of building that ultimately raise costs for the people trying to enter the housing market. For example, the neo-traditional, or "New Urbanism," design standards, currently in the West of Steamboat plan, actually increase the cost of design and building of neighborhoods. This needs to be reviewed and possibly revised. Additionally, the current development standards required by Public Works, Fire & Safety and the Water Department also contribute to higher costs of development. There are things we can do without jeopardizing the efficiencies and services of these areas that would help create affordable housing.
Q. Is there a better or an additional solution to Steamboat's affordable housing problem than requiring one-third of all housing in the West of Steamboat area be affordable?
A. I don't see a better solution, but there are lots of other things we can do to solve our community's housing problem, including the formation of a multijurisdictional housing authority, aggressively seeking financial partners for things like down-payment assistance programs, and supporting self-help or "sweat-equity" programs. We also need to support other development projects like West End Village, which could be aimed at creating affordable rental programs, or new mobile home developments where occupants could own their own lot, thereby greatly improving the financing costs.
Q. What do you see as the biggest deterrent from developers creating affordable housing in all of Steamboat? And what can be changed to encourage affordable housing.
A. When a developer/builder can make a 10 percent or more profit on one $2 million home, why would he go through the hassle and risk of undertaking 10 $200,000 units for the same profit? It's basic economics. We need to provide incentives for local builders and developers to focus on this segment of the market because it's the right thing to do for all of us. If we don't provide reasonable housing opportunities for our firefighters, teachers, nurses and carpenters to live and work here, we risk having our community turn into extremely high-priced markets like Vail and Aspen.
There is no easy or quick solution to this problem. It takes a lot of smart and dedicated people, which we have in the Yampa Valley, working on this problem over a long period of time. We've had lots of talk and very little action during the past 20 years. The community needs to commit to implement some or all of our options.