Rule must be done right

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The Steamboat Springs City Council is weighing one of the most important documents in recent history -- the inclusionary zoning ordinance.

The ordinance, which would require future residential development to include affordable housing, has the potential to be the most significant step the city has taken to address our growing housing issues.

We support the ordinance's concept. It is the kind of progressive solution to a community problem that Steamboat needs, and ultimately, such an ordinance should be approved. But we also would urge the council to take the time necessary to get the ordinance right. If that means delaying a vote on the second reading, which is scheduled for Tuesday's council meeting, so be it.

As the West of Steamboat Springs Area Plan showed, a flawed ordinance is worse than no ordinance at all. In the west of Steamboat plan, the affordable housing component was too high, and the plan's guidelines became obstacles to development. As a result, a plan that was supposed to help alleviate the city's housing crunch worsened it: Nothing was developed, lots became more scarce, supply dwindled and housing costs rose at a rate higher than before the plan was implemented.

Done incorrectly, the inclusionary zoning ordinance can produce a similarly disastrous result.

The basic premise of the ordinance -- that 15 percent or more of future residential development should be affordable -- is sensible. The ordinance includes reasonable flexibility, allowing developers to build affordable housing at different sites in greater quantities, to provide funding for affordable housing in lieu of including it in a specific development or to dedicate land to the city for affordable housing. The ordinance as written creates several ways to increase the supply of affordable housing.

Since the first reading was approved Jan. 24, there have been a number of changes to the ordinance, mostly in response to concerns raised by the public and developers.

Several changes make sense. For example, the new ordinance includes language requiring homeowners association fees to be included in determining affordability. Also, the original ordinance required developments in the boundaries of the urban renewal authority to fund more affordable housing than other developments. The revised ordinance equalizes the requirement for all developments choosing to fund affordable housing off-site.

Other changes raise red flags.

The revised ordinance states that any existing affordable housing that is lost to development must be replaced at 100 percent. For example, a project that replaces a 35-unit mobile home park must include a minimum of 35 new affordable units. City officials said the goal is to ensure no net loss of affordable housing; however, the restriction seems specifically written to punish mobile-home park owners. That seems unjustly punitive considering the decades of affordable housing such landowners have provided.

Also, the plan requires greater percentages of affordable housing for multi-family projects that include larger units. A developer must provide 25 percent affordable housing for each 4,000-square-foot unit, but only 15 percent for units less than 2,000 square feet. That's a requirement that could stymie, rather than foster, affordable housing efforts.

The gap between housing costs and wages in the Yampa Valley grows each year, as does the demand for lower- and middle-income workers. On the surface, the inclusionary zoning ordinance seems a great way to close the gap, but only if it is done right. We would urge the council to take the time to make sure that happens.

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