I can trace my career in affordable housing back to 1994 when I was a junior at Fort Lewis College and began plotting my permanent residency in Durango.
Once I learned that the median house price at that time was $150,000 (around $265,000 in today’s money), I had to question my ability to stay here while earning a nonprofit worker’s salary. A seed was planted that day: How do communities like Durango provide more affordable housing opportunities and what will happen if we don’t?
I have spent the last 22 years trying to answer that question. In some ways the answers are not that complex. We need to build more cost-efficiently and we need to have access to significant subsidies from federal, state and local sources.
Things get more complicated when it comes to creating consensus and political will for meaningful, coordinated action. Our communities can only successfully create affordable housing at scale if multiple approaches are attempted simultaneously. And I say “at scale” because the median house price in Durango is approaching $600,000 and only bold action can deliver some relief at this point.
Let us assume we are not too late to create meaningful affordable housing opportunities. Where do we start? Our local governments need to develop a comprehensive, measurable housing strategy that employs all possible governmental tools while simultaneously leveraging private sector solutions. Local government needs to commit to full implementation of this plan by contracting with professionals who understand how to implement these strategies. This approach wouldn’t be unprecedented. We did this from 2007-2011 and had significant success with a few key affordable housing tools. What worked? We developed a local community bank, the Homes Fund, that provided down payment assistance during the recession and helped numerous community members take advantage of the market downturn.
We built up the work of the La Plata County Community Development Corporation and launched a land development program that resulted in the Lumien Apartments on 32nd Street and the Espero Apartments opening this fall near Manna. We developed an inclusionary zoning program that had partial success with units in Three Springs (Miramonte Apartments) and in subdivisions such as Mountain Trace in northeast Durango.
Was this enough? No, but it showed the community that a 10-fold increase in affordable housing opportunities was possible through a thoughtful, coordinated strategy.
What would such a bold approach look like in 2021? We need to revisit a public land inventory strategy with Fort Lewis College, Durango School District 9-R, the city, county and state, and develop a coordinated affordable housing development pipeline.
What if we used public financing tools to develop subdivisions that provided shovel-ready lots in mixed-income communities? We need a designated public funding source to build capacity and pay for predevelopment activities to create this pipeline.
Inclusionary zoning is a powerful tool. We have a local ordinance, but it has not been fully implemented since 2013. I hear the city is revisiting the program and I hope that a more robust program can be developed with input from the development community.
We also cannot ignore that the second-home market has significantly impacted our housing market for the last several years and it may be time to consider ways to mitigate its impacts from this market through tools such as a real estate transfer fee.
COVID-19 has significantly hurt commercial businesses. How do we use subsidies to reimagine and redevelop these spaces for affordable housing and live-work spaces?
Finally, we need a broad-based affordable housing coalition, not unlike the one started in the late 1990s by local folks like Mary Kennedy, Katie Bonamasso and Bill Mashaw. This coalition would reinvigorate a public dialogue about solutions and support local government to go bigger with their strategies and to do so immediately.
The housing industry is anticipating significant increases in affordable housing resources under the Biden Administration and the Durango community should do everything in its power to be ready for them.
I believe in our community leaders. Let’s do this. The time to act is now.
Jenn Lopez is an affordable housing consultant working in Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. She lives in Durango. Lopez helped develop the Durango/La Plata County Homeless Strategy in 2020.