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Panelists say housing crisis will require moving of mountains and minds

NIMBYism is a hurdle, but the real danger may be the disappearing middle class
A 1,347-square-foot home with three bedrooms and two bathrooms on Delwood Avenue in Durango was listed at $549,000 on June 4, 2019, and was under contract five days later. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Changes to both physical and philosophical landscapes may be required to pull Durango and La Plata County out of the deepening housing crisis some say the area has slipped into over the course of decades.

At the Durango Chamber of Commerce Eggs & Issues meeting held virtually Wednesday, a panel of community leaders and housing experts discussed the need to create attainable housing for workers.

La Plata County Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton discussed activities the Regional Housing Alliance of La Plata County is undertaking to identify infrastructure and development opportunities. Some of those opportunities include repurposing space in and around town, such as the large lot that hosts La Plata County Fairgrounds.

Plans to relocate the fairgrounds to Durango Mesa, formerly Ewing Mesa, were discussed in January 2021, but development didn’t take off last year as planned.

“We want to move our fairgrounds,” Porter-Norton said. “... It’s a very costly endeavor getting the infrastructure up there and the relationships in place to make that happen.”

Porter-Norton suggested the fairgrounds should be added to the ideas list of opportunities for housing development space. She acknowledged that the location of the fairgrounds is a “gem” to the community and that such a project would require much public engagement and collaboration with the city of Durango.

Elizabeth Salkind, executive director of Housing Solutions for the Southwest, advocated for shifts in policy and perspective to find creative solutions to the housing crisis.

“Our country’s in love with single-family residential,” said Salkind, who is also a volunteer for Housing Colorado. “... But we cannot as a nation, probably a world, continue to live with that as our only ideal. It’s not realistic. It was like a post-World War II thing that everyone got on board with. But it’s simply not our future for housing.”

With all the talk of change to the way communities think about housing and the very layout of the community, an obvious barrier to progress needed to be addressed: NIMBYism, or the not-in-my-backyard mindset.

Panelists acknowledged opposition exists among some to affordable housing, and that opposition tends to attract more attention than positive reinforcement or support.

Porter-Norton described opposition as stereotypical sentiments such as, “I don’t want to live next to those people,” “Creating new attainable housing isn’t the government’s job” and general resistance to change.

HomesFund Executive Director Lisa Bloomquist said human nature isn’t welcoming of change because it can come off as threatening to what one has become accustomed to. But what is truly threatening is that if the middle class isn’t helped, it will disappear, she said.

Porter-Norton and Bob Allen with Allen and Associates said housing prices have risen so high since they moved to Durango in the 1990s and 1980s, respectively, that they could not afford to move to the area today.

Porter-Norton said the average teacher’s pay is $49,000; it would take two teachers living together to maybe, barely afford a home in Durango.

Durango Mayor Kim Baxter said she has lived in areas prone to earthquakes and other natural disasters and it isn’t ideal to have emergency response personnel, such as firefighters, priced out of the communities they serve. She said the definition of “community” comprises everyone, not just one range of people.

“We want our snowplow drivers, we want our garbage collection people, we want everyone to be able to live in our community,” Baxter said.

Builders – the people who would construct workforce housing – face the same problem other working class people do. They are being priced out of town, Allen said in a chat message during the virtual meeting.

Bloomquist said subsidies – even though they have a negative connotation – are needed to spur development.

“Building is awfully expensive right now,” she said. “I think that’s the crux of the biggest problem that we have with (housing) supply.”

The number of La Plata County residential unit building permits dwindled after the recession began in late 2007. (Courtesy of Bob Allen, Allen and Associates)

She said if building a single-family home costs $250 per square foot, a 1,500-square-foot home will cost $375,000, not including land and infrastructure.

“If we want homes that are priced at $300,000 and it costs $500,000 to build, we’re going to have to put in some sort of subsidy,” Bloomquist said. “... We, as an affordable housing community, need to come together to just do whatever we need to do to facilitate putting more units on the ground.”

As far as addressing NIMBYism, Porter-Norton said more community forums must be held and a communications plan needs to be formed to solicit the strong group of community leaders that is amassing to tackle the housing crisis.

Salkind said people expressing opposition to affordable housing ideas or projects should be addressed one-on-one to identify their specific issues and concerns.

cburney@durangoherald.com

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