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La Plata County governments turn to old tool to address housing ‘crisis’

Officials reactivate regional housing authority
La Plata County governments are reactivating the regional housing authority to address affordable housing. (Keith Srakocic/Associated Press)

As La Plata County residents struggle to find affordable housing options, local governments have reactivated a tool they believe will help.

Durango, Bayfield, Ignacio and La Plata County unanimously decided in early July to activate the area’s regional housing authority, which tackles affordable housing projects, partnerships and programs.

The authority went dormant in 2017. But with the post-2020 rush to rural areas, rapidly rising housing prices and bottomed-out housing stock, La Plata County governments are bringing the authority back online.

“This is such a pressing need in our community, it would not be prudent to let the tool, the regional housing authority, go away,” said La Plata County Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton.

Local governments pushed La Plata County’s authority, called the Regional Housing Alliance, into dormancy to reduce costs and redundancy. Local organizations took on the area’s affordable housing needs.

But the county, like communities across Colorado and the U.S., is facing a tight housing market. Housing stock is quickly snapped up, and prices are soaring.

Companies are hearing that housing prices are a significant barrier to recruiting employees. Officials are worried that Durango’s core workforce — servers, teachers, small business employees — cannot afford to live in the city.

Local municipalities decided to reactivate the housing alliance as one of many strategies to address the problem, which some, including Porter-Norton, have called a crisis.

“We see an opportunity to use (the alliance) to create housing now. Not five years from now,” said Durango Mayor Kim Baxter.

During an early July retreat, disbanding the alliance was an option, Porter-Norton said. The government officials vetted the idea and unanimously decided not to go in that direction.

“We can do more together than if we all went our separate ways,” she said.

The Regional Housing Alliance will explore ways to partner with existing groups that already work on affordable housing, such as HomesFund, Housing Solutions for the Southwest and the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance.

But the alliance can leverage unique tools, which are not available to those organizations.

As an intergovernmental entity, the Regional Housing Alliance can ask voters for a sales or property tax increase to support its operation and programs. It can condemn property. It can create enterprises for self-funded projects, such as rental housing, and have greater access to state and federal grants.

“We have not decided that the RHA here would take on all these functions,” Porter-Norton said.

In the past, the alliance was able to plan, finance, acquire, construct, repair, manage and operate housing projects for families of low or moderate income.

“Housing authorities are not the ‘be-all’ to housing options; however, from a small-town perspective, a housing authority can field or support the complex housing grants, requirements and gather valuable resources,” said Bayfield Town Manager Katie Sickles.

Ignacio, like the other RHA members, wants to build housing at all levels, with a focus on middle-income workforce housing.

“There are many pieces to the house building puzzle, and we need to understand them and incorporate what we can into the project so that we achieve our goal,” said Mark Garcia, Ignacio’s interim town manager. “We are much smaller than the other members but have the same issues and challenges.”

The alliance might be reactivated, but local governments have a lot to do to get it up and running.

The government partners need to negotiate a new intergovernmental agreement, which will outline how the alliance will be staffed, organized and funded. In the past, each partner provided a percentage of the funding based on population.

The alliance needs to consider how much housing is needed, what it should look like and where it should go, Baxter said.

“I’m very excited about it. I think there’s a real opportunity here,” she said. “The RHA is a unique vehicle for creating housing. We don’t have anything quite like it right now.”

Already, the partners know that middle-income workforce housing is a top priority.

“There is no reason for it (the alliance) to exist unless we can help more inventory come online, and there’s many ways to do that,” Porter-Norton said. “We need to vet them and see which ones are feasible.”

They are also waiting for the results of a housing study, conducted by the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments and Housing Solutions for the Southwest. The study is expected to wrap up in July or August and will assess the need for different types of housing units for people at different income levels, Porter-Norton said.

The governments are looking at ways to use one-time American Rescue Plan funding to assist with affordable housing projects.

The city of Durango also is looking at options to use hotels, motels and city property for middle-income housing, Baxter said.

“I think this is critical to maintaining the character of our community,” she said. “We have an opportunity here to stay the real town we are and not to become a resort economy.”

“I don’t remember a time where I’ve seen so much passion and energy happening,” Porter-Norton said. “Everyone has the best intentions to make this work.”