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La Plata needs stable funding for affordable housing

Laurie Roberts

Like many parts of the world, La Plata County is facing a severe shortage of housing.

Our county is lucky to be organizing around use of American Rescue Plan Act funds. La Plata County citizens have identified housing as the No. 1 need.

The sudden increase in resources through ARPA also makes now the best of times. La Plata County received nearly $12 million in ARPA funds. Colorado received $3.8 billion and has multiple initiatives to address the housing crisis. A ballot question in November will ask voters to authorize a stable funding source for affordable housing with Ballot Initiative 108.

It’s also the worst of times to be organizing for housing in La Plata County. Since 1999, our area has spent $140 million on parks and open space, and only $5 million on housing. The housing crash in 2008 led to an exodus of skilled construction workers. Our county and the city of Durango have struggled to address our homeless crisis and are facing a deadline with limited communication to the public or our homeless neighbors. The county had allowed an unmanaged camp at Purple Cliffs on an interim basis, setting Sept. 30 for closure.

Our elected representatives have tried to step up to the housing crisis by resurrecting the Regional Housing Authority in 2021. However, the fact that we have not had a housing authority operational for a number of years puts us further behind when compared to other Colorado resort communities. For example, Steamboat Springs housing authority has 175 rental units and 100 deed-restricted ownership units, plus a mobile home park.

A frustration we all face is the Federal Reserve Board’s recent decision to raise interest rates to tame inflation. A poor response, given that a main contributor to inflation in our economy is supply chain disruption caused by COVID-19. Raising interest rates increases housing costs. Higher interest rates make home mortgages and housing construction loans more expensive, at a time when rental and purchase costs are already out of reach for too many.

Spitting in our faces, fossil fuel companies are logging record profits – this is price gouging! The conservative United Kingdom implemented a windfall profits tax, as should we.

Another source of frustration is misunderstanding our labor market. The unemployment rate in our region is 2.9%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in June. However, real wages are not increasing. It’s too easy to blame anonymous “others” for being lazy, but the truth is our unemployment rate is extremely low, as is wage growth.

A final misunderstanding in addressing affordable housing is the extent of subsidies for housing enjoyed by the wealthy. Congress supports housing in two main ways: rental assistance and homeownership tax programs. In 2015, the price tag for federal rental assistance – Section 8 housing vouchers, public housing, Homeless Assistance Grants and other programs – was $51 billion.

Meanwhile, two homeownership tax programs – the Mortgage Interest Deduction and the Property Tax Deduction – cost $90 billion – nearly double that of affordable housing programs! Low-income households average about 8 cents per month from these programs, while the top 0.1 percent (income over $9 million per year) average $1,236 per month. The National Flood Insurance Program is a federal program that largely helps well-off homeowners, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Eighty% of flood insured homes are in counties that rank in the top income quintile. These are not middle-class homeowners.

Let’s understand that we taxpayers greatly subsidize wealthy homeowners. Let’s call for a windfall profits tax and protection of our citizens against price gouging. Let’s support an RHA, which can function as a public developer. And let’s support Colorado’s Ballot Initiative 108.

Laurie Roberts of Bayfield volunteers with United Today, Stronger Tomorrow.