As local government races to ease the strain of inadequate housing infrastructure, the Grand County Planning Commission is evaluating a draft ordinance that would require all new development to include an affordable housing component.
Business, nonprofit, government and community leaders gathered at the Grand County Council chambers on Monday, Oct. 3, for a question-and-answer session about “assured housing” with a panel of experts from across the West. Comprised of representatives of government, business and construction, the panel discussed affordable housing development in Summit and Wasatch counties.
The panel shared general experiences with the effects of affordable housing regulations on development, and more detailed personal anecdotes from specific projects.
“I felt it was important for the community to hear from individuals already operating under an (assured) housing paradigm,” Grand County Community Development Director Zacharia Levine said. “I can show people the data all day long … but it’s important for our community leaders and elected officials to see how assured housing works in the real world.”
Levine, who chairs the Interlocal Housing Task Force, has been analyzing the best available housing, demographic and economic data in order to update an affordable housing plan that the city and county adopted in 2009.
His findings suggest that residential construction for long-term occupancy has not kept pace with population growth and workforce expansion. The majority of new construction is oriented toward the short-term rental market, and not toward local residents and seasonal workers.
Deed restrictions put in place as part of an assured housing ordinance could help slow that trend, Community Rebuilds Executive Director Emily Niehaus said. The nonprofit organization, which is building its 17th and 18th single family residential homes in Moab this fall, recently took charge of drafting and enforcing deed restrictions for the houses it builds.
“What I believe these policies would do, is not stop development,” she said, explaining that deed restrictions are akin to someone curtailing the engine power of a golf cart headed downhill. “You’re still going to get to the bottom of the hill, but it’s going to be a little bit slower, and you’re just going to pump the brakes a little on development.”
Attendees questioned whether removing certain housing stock from the influence of the marketplace would drive away development, or impoverish homeowners. Panel members agreed that those concerns, while common, are unfounded.
“(Affordable housing requirements) may scare away some groups,” CenterCal Properties Development Manager Alec Paddock acknowledged.
CenterCal Properties was required to comply with the ordinance only after it reached a preliminary development agreement with Summit County. It chose to amend its plans and continue with construction on a multi-use retail center with an added affordable housing component.
Asked why the firm didn’t walk away, Paddock said that the project was still profitable and the company only regretted not having been able to include affordable housing in the initial design.
“The way we see that is, it’s a cost of doing business if you want to be in that location,” he said.
Assured housing is a growth-oriented policy, Levine said.
“You want to implement in a market that’s hot and growing,” he told the Moab Sun News. “Developers are creative people; they will find ways to comply with ordinances that minimize their impact on the community and local infrastructure and resources, and still make money in the process.”
Housing the seasonal workforce
In addition to helping full-time residents house their families, assured housing can also mitigate a common resort town problem: More lodging attracts more visitors spending more money, but service quality suffers when no housing is built for employees.
One of Moab’s oldest guide services, Tag-A-Long Expeditions, has struggled to keep up with demand this year because it can’t recruit enough guides.
Typically, they’re students on summer break who have limited funds and can’t find affordable housing, Tag-A-Long sales director Sarah Sidwell said. Most rentals within their price range require longer leases than transient, seasonal workers can commit to.
Some employees manage to work around inaccessible housing by car camping all season.
Adelaine Sagan, a river guide at Tag-A-Long, has found a room in trailers on and off over her last four seasons in Moab. But overall, she prefers car camping – her current housing solution.
At 21, and with years ahead of her before settling down, she is OK with the arrangement, she said. But she doesn’t see herself settling here, as much as she would love to.
“I don’t see having a family here,” she said. “It would be really pricey. I don’t think that’s a feasible future scenario.”
At one time, the lot behind the company’s storefront building served as a tidy trailer park, housing seasonal staff in a small community with contracted trash and sewage collection, Sidwell said. As the city began to enforce zoning ordinances that prohibited such arrangements, she said, Tag-A-Long requested to build dorm-style housing on the property and was denied.
“They said, ‘That’s a fantastic idea, but you’re zoned C-3,’” she said, explaining that residential construction in areas zoned C-3 has to include a commercial component. “In order to build housing, it can only be 20 percent of the overall square footage – and it has to be on the second floor.”
Sidwell attended last week’s information session, and she said she is confident that a solution is imminent. Meanwhile, the full-time office staff are all licensed to guide, and are pressed to juggle management while caring for customers in the field.
“It’s greatly impacted our business,” she said. “We are literally turning people away. We had to limit sales this year like crazy, it was insane.”
Revenues this year won’t be impacted, other than being lower than they might have been if Tag-A-Long could have hired more employees to accommodate the growth, she said. She expects the real pain to come next year, when customers remember being turned away, or getting harried customer service.
Assured housing ordinances in Park City require new businesses to provide housing for their share of the employment base in a tourism-driven economy, Park City Municipal Corporation Housing Specialist Rhoda Stauffer said. The city helps them find ways to do that, and she cited the example of new hotels building employee housing on premises to meet their affordable housing requirement.
Nearly a year in the making, Grand County’s draft assured housing ordinance will be released by the end of the month, and Levine said he feels confident it will provide sound guidance for action in the near future.
“This is an important first step in a larger arc of changes in the development arena,” he said. “It’s my hope that it facilitates a real focused effort on evaluating increased densities in key areas of the county.”
Park City panel shares experience with “assured housing” ordinances
What I believe these policies would do, is not stop development. You’re still going to get to the bottom of the hill, but it’s going to be a little bit slower, and you’re just going to pump the brakes a little on development.