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Housing solution must include path to homeownership

Bill Roberts

Much of the talk this year, particularly around the City Council election, has involved affordable housing. But there has been a curious shift in the language. The preferred term now seems to be workforce housing, and that change is both refreshing and disturbing.

It is refreshing because it is honest. Ensuring an ongoing supply of workers is probably the main interest local government has in housing costs. It is disturbing because “workforce housing” sounds a lot like “servants’ quarters.”

None of that makes a good case for local government to intervene. And the last thing we need is to make the problem worse.

Between the realities of capitalism and human nature, some degree of economic stratification is unavoidable. But do we really want to treat much-needed workers as second-class citizens by limiting their opportunities for homeownership?

Most of the ideas being advanced about housing involve adding rentals or capping new owners’ appreciation. Those make sense if the only goal is keeping a roof over the worker bees. But what do those steps do for workers and what would they mean for the community? What do we want to risk to ameliorate what could be a temporary problem?

We have all seen how people can feel trapped in Durango: A young person comes here, maybe to go to college. There is skiing, boarding, biking and river sports. The scenery is beautiful, the nightlife is great, and the town is full of attractive young people. What’s not to like?

Then, one day, that person decides to have a family and those priorities change. Or he or she turns 40, and finds that bikes and skis are not enough.

Either case could mean they abandon Durango. That might depend on their perception of the community and their possibilities.

Homeownership is how Americans accumulate wealth. Retirement plans are fine, but homeownership accounts for the bulk of most families’ assets. And there is nothing shallow or selfish about that.

My parents bought a home in California 63 years ago. It was an unremarkable tract house, but it was home, and it provided more than shelter.

That house meant my father died knowing that his children had the means to see to our mother’s well-being. It meant my sisters and I never had to worry about tradeoffs between Mom’s care and the needs of our kids or spouses.

Those are not small things. They are the kind of things that give purpose to a life and comfort to a family.

Besides, if the problem is attracting workers, the answer does not have to include getting the city into the housing business. It could be simple economics – increased pay or better benefits. Or it could mean evolving business models. That has happened in the past and it is likely happening again now.

But if the question is really about housing, the answer has to include building equity. That enables more than a workforce; it fosters families and creates community. Everybody benefits from less transient, more invested neighbors.

Ownership could mean any number of situations, from single-family houses to condos, mobile homes or new ideas. Could mobile home parks become like condominiums? Why not encourage homeownership by limiting rentals? There are surely other ideas out there as well.

But three things seem clear to me: More building does not guarantee affordability. (California has proven that.) Creating a permanent underclass would threaten the community more than it would benefit any part of the economy. And a healthy solution must include at least a path to homeownership.

Any of that sound better than “workforce housing?”

Bill Roberts was a former Opinion Editor for The Durango Herald from 1990 to 2017.