From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 7, Number 2 - April 5, 2007
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

County P&Z to recommend affordable-housing study

by Joy Ufford

After a public workshop on affordable housing Monday afternoon, Sublette County planning and zoning commissioners agreed to recommend that the county get a needs-assessment study underway.

Bill Collins of Collins Planning and Associates, Jackson, presented them with the same overview on housing-issue analysis he gave the Sublette County Commissioners on March 20.

Commissioners asked him to make the same presentation to planning and zoning members so they could then request that the county do a needs-assessment study, Collins said.

Suzy Michnevich and Albert Sommers, being the only two county planning and zoning commissioners present, heard the overview, asked questions, took comments from the audience and at the end agreed to recommend that the county act on a study.

The first step in analyzing the housing issue is to prepare a housing assessment, Collins said.

“Many communities suffer from a shortage of housing that is affordable to the mainstream workforce and this shortage can impact the quality of life of every citizen in the community,” Collins said.

The housing assessment will define the affordable-housing issue in local terms and examine whether a problem actually exists or not, quantify existing demand and project future needs; identify the population segment most in need of housing and establish “the magnitude of the problem,” according to Collins.

“Quantitative” data and projections can then be used to determine the size of a problem, how fast it is growing and what kind of solution is needed, he said.

A “Rational Nexus Analysis – which is needed when mandatory housing requirements are imposed on new development – can be done concurrently with a housing assessment, Collins said.

After these steps are taken, a community can identify multiple approaches to provide flexibility, adjust to market changes and spread housing solutions over a cross-section of the community, he said.

“There housing issues are complex enough that there are no silver bullets,” Colllins said.

He stressed the need for committed leadership and organization to solve housing shortages, whether by town and/or county offices, a public-housing authority or a nonprofit organization.

Land is the most costly aspect of an affordable-housing program and Collins advised that Sublette County consider buying land and “banking” it or dedicate already-owned property for affordable housing.

He also discussed voluntary approaches to provide incentives for developers to include affordable options in their projects. Incentives might include shared parking between commercial and residential units, allowing attached units where detached units are usually required or reducing landscaping requirements for affordable housing.

Mandatory approaches include inclusionary zoning and linkage requirements, he explained. Inclusionary zoning ordinances require that a certain percentage of new housing be priced to match various income abilities to pay for a home. Linkage requirements require new residential or commercial developments to create affordable housing proportionate to demand for it, for example, employee housing.

Financing sources, such as “Shared Appreciation Mortgages, lending pools, dedicated funding sources or foundation grants, are a necessary element of affordable housing and would require staff to carry through, he said.

Finally, the town and county should review their procedures, regulations and standards related to development applications, Collins said.

“Sometimes our very own rules are obstacles to affordable housing,” Collins said. “Take a good hard objective look at ordinances and regulations … and see whether there may be a way to skin the cat different ways.”

Collins presented Jeffrey Jaquet’s “snapshot report” outlining Sublette County factors that need to be figured into a needs assessment.

“What’s obvious to all of you ... and jumped out at me was this temporary demand coming from this oil and gas surge,” Collins said, adding that the length of time this surge will be a factor – whether 10 or 50 years – should be analyzed as to how it will affect affordable-housing decisions.

According to Jaquet’s report, about 3,000 oil and gas-related employees are expected in the county for about a decade and then they might leave, he said.

“For the community to think about that, that’s quite a policy challenge,” Collins said.

If those 3,000 employees move into the housing market, prices will rise too high if demand isn’t met and when they leave, prices might drop too slowly for people to recoup their investments.

Both Sommers and Michnevich both said much will depend on the Bureau of Land Management’s upcoming decisions as to action choices for the gas industry.

Collins suggested temporary units such as mobile-home parks could house gas-industry employees, keeping them from impacting the permanent housing market. However, several people at the workshop said there is a shortage of “lower-wage” service workers due to lack of affordable housing and the local economy suffers when businesses are understaffed or forced to close.

Laurie Latta said service workers are “pretty integral to the community’s economy.”

“I’m not sure they are going to be able to afford even a lower-priced condominium,” she said.

In that case, Collins said, one solution may be adding rental housing or employee housing.

Sommers said he had several ideas to bring up in regards to affordable housing.

Instead of having a housing authority, he said he would rather see requirements for subdivisions to provide affordable housing and pick options from a list: rental units, mobile-home units or smaller lots with smaller homes.

Alternatives for developers can come from the community, Collins said, but there must be three or four, possibly including dedicating land to affordable housing, buying existing units, paying a fee or on-site or off-site employee housing.

Two people in the audience spoke against affordable-housing and subsidies.

“I’m a fan of free-market economics,” said Paul Rock of the Pinedale Planning and Zoning Board. “You’ll never get a tax passed to support affordable housing in Sublette County and you know that.”

He said he “struggled” with the $25,000-$50,000 price tag Collins put on a housing-needs study just to “find out the sky is blue.” Affordable housing isn’t happening here, he said. “It seems like we’re flogging a dead horse again.”

Sommers said he sees a lack of interest among town and county decision-makers.

“If the town has no interest in affordable housing then it’s almost a moot point,” he said. “If you want to talk about affordable housing and keep a straight face you have to talk about single-wide trailers. I’m reality-based.”

Michnevich said she believes in a “middle ground” and there is “no need to be overly pessimistic.”

“If we have a good study so we know exactly what we need to do one step at a time, we look and see what we can do,” she said. “You can’t eat an elephant in one bite.”

“I think you’re starting on the second elephant,” Rock replied, in reference to the Sonoran Institute study that came to the conclusion that Sublette County has a housing shortage.

He told Sommers and Michnevich that he doesn’t think there is “as big a problem as you make it out to be. Rock said he talked to the Sublette County School District board and all of their teachers have housing.

“Maybe we’re choosing to not see it,” Michnevich said, relating a conversation she had with a rental-property owner in Boulder who said there are “45 people in constant communication who need housing.”

Richard Kail told the group that he owns a small lot and considered putting a 1,200-square-foot house on it but learned it would cost $120,000 to build and that he would have to ask $1,200 a month for rent.

“There’s no way you’re going to put an affordable house on the market today without some sort of subsidy,” Kail said. The only way to get employees into affordable housing is if their employers pay them more, charge customers more or make less profit themselves, he said, adding that he is not interested in subsidizing “that poor fellow” who can’t afford to retire and move here.

“I keep thinking about some way for us to have a mobile-home park,” Michnevich said. “Nobody wants it.”

After discussing funding, town support, types of units and program oversight, Michnevich and Sommers returned to whether they should support a housing-needs study.

“Our job here is to…” Sommers said.

“...Make some sort of recommendation,” Michnevich finished. “Well, we can do that.”

They asked Collins to break down the costs of each part of a study and give the county a bid. Michnevich said they would meet with Pinedale officials and tell them they are recommending a study proceed.

“I think it’s key that the town and us work together on this,” Sommers said.

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