Outsiders urge housing push

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— Friday's affordable housing forum stretched on an extra hour, until the group was bumped out of the room to make way for a wedding party.

Perhaps it was the topic: "We're not Alone: Learning from Other Communities." Perhaps it was because each of the six presenters had a compelling story to share.

One message was universal: Act immediately on affordable housing.

Representatives of housing agencies from Jackson, Wyo.; Aspen and Pitkin County; Summit County; Rio Blanco County and Garfield County spoke at the forum. Another speaker represented the Mountain Regional Housing Corporation, which covers several counties.

They offered advice, predictions and tales of success and failure at the fourth affordable housing forum series event put on by the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association's Economic Development Council at Rex's American Grill & Bar.

Tom McCabe, executive director of the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority, said his community has been dealing with the issue for decades. In his 33 months on the job, he's seen the average home price increase from $3.2 million to more than $5.4 million.

"If the community believes you have a need for affordable housing, get started now," McCabe said. "It's only going to get more expensive."

The ingredients of a successful local campaign are community support, political support and dedicated funding, he said. Although his agency has those things, along with 2,800 deed-restricted units, he said it would never catch up with housing needs.

"Years ago, I was foolish enough to think that we would run out of billionaires. : They're going to build up every neighborhood you can think of," he said.

Aspen is on the verge of becoming two neighborhoods: the super wealthy and the work force housing. McCabe said the middle class - and the workers who provide vital services - will be erased.

"If you have a dirty toilet, you might be able to live with that," he said. "If you have a heart attack and you're lying there, dialing 911, and there's no doctor, or even no operator and no ambulance driver, you have a community that's out of whack. : Our community is out of whack. The reason I put this onto the table is to tell you what's coming."

Anne Hayden leads the Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust in Wyoming. The private non-profit group has worked with developers and the Teton County housing agency to add lower-cost, deed-restricted homes.

The median home price in the area has gone from about $200,000 in 1992 to $1.95 million now and is rising steadily, Hayden said. The issue has gotten so wild that government officials put a moratorium on some types of development, she said.

"Things in Jackson have reached a tipping point," Hayden said. "Don't get there. That would be my advice."

Several of the speakers stressed the need for public-private partnerships, and Hayden encouraged Steamboat Springs officials to bring developers to the table. Her organization is funded almost entirely by private donations.

As they told their stories and pushed Steamboat officials to move quickly, the speakers noted one advantage here: space.

"I drove into Steamboat, looked at that nice, wide median and said, 'I could build affordable housing on that median,'" McCabe joked.

But he got serious, speaking with urgency.

"We have the money; we just don't have the dirt," McCabe said. "You have dirt. Go capture it, and find the money."

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