Boker project seeks tax credit incentive program approval

Design altered in an effort to address critics

For the first time in six years, Durango has an opportunity to build affordable housing for low-income workers earning between $15,000 and $40,000 a year, a housing advocate told City Council on Tuesday.

Jennifer Lopez, executive director of the Regional Housing Alliance, sought the council’s support for an application for a federal tax credit incentive program, considered crucial to attracting investment in the building of 50 rental units of one to two bedrooms at the former Boker Lumber site on College Drive near Ninth Avenue.

Neighbors have long opposed multifamily housing proposals there, but developer Emil Wanatka of Timberline Builders believes his latest project will satisfy their concerns.

Traffic would not access the property from Ninth Avenue. The housing would be tucked against the hillside and not on the western edge of the 2-acre property, where it would loom over the homes.

Instead of one big apartment building, there will be three smaller buildings that would be 3 stories high. Past proposals have called for a 4-story building.

Because the property is so close to downtown, Wanatka said his project fulfills the city’s goals of urban infill, or revitalizing under-used property to minimize sprawl in outlying areas. Renters would be able to walk to work and access public transportation. “If these people cannot afford a car, well then, who best to live along a transit route?” Wanatka said.

More workforce housing would make it easier to recruit new businesses, Lopez said.

“We have a hard time doing (affordable housing) here because land costs are so high,” she said in an interview after the meeting, “This is a once in a decade kind of deal. It’s hard to find a site that’s the right size, the right location.”

“It’s the alignment of the stars,” Lopez said.

The last local affordable-housing project was Piņon Terrace, built in 2006 in Three Springs. So “the demand is huge,” Lopez said.

But Lopez and Wanatka acknowledged that the application process is extremely competitive for the federal tax incentive program, which allows investors to write off their losses on housing projects.

As part of the application, Mayor Doug Lyon objected to language in a letter suggesting that the city would commit to waiving a half million dollars worth of taxes and fees.

Instead, he agreed to language saying the city has supported similar projects in the past.

Lopez, however, noted that the city will have ample opportunity to review the project as it goes through the normal development process.

But “getting the city to (waive fees) would be an enormous benefit to this project,” Wanatka said. “It would allows to us to serve people of a lower-income bracket.”

If the project does not qualify for the tax incentive, “we’ll be back to the drawing board,” he said. “We’ll have to reassess our options.”

In other business, the city’s finances received a clean audit from Haynie & Co., a certified public accounting firm based in Littleton.

“It’s the highest level of assurance we can give,” said Nick Warnick, an accountant for a firm that has been auditing the city’s books for the last four years. “We found no material disagreements.”

The firm looked at the city’s 2011 financial statements, federal awards and even cash receipts at the Durango Community Recreation Center.

It noted sales-tax revenue increased from $18.3 million in 2010 to $18.9 million in 2011. Long-term debts have decreased from $39 million in 2010 to $37 million in 2011.

City councilors wondered if the city should be paying down debt faster, but City Manager Ron LeBlanc said there would be equity issues in paying off debt on the Durango Public Library and Florida Road too soon because future users would get the benefits of these projects free.

The city’s 2011 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report will be submitted to the Government Finance Officers Association for review and possible recognition for excellence in financial reporting. The city has received this award for the last 28 years.

jhaug@durangoherald.com