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For whom should we try to create affordable housing?
by† Paul† Chevalier
From the Red Rock Review's monthly opinion column

"Thinking About Sedona"

Editorís Note: Chevalier is the Chairman of Sedonaís Art and Culture Commission. He is a retired Senior Executive of a major retailer where he was responsible for law and personnel. He holds a Degree in Government from Columbia College, a Law Degree from Columbia Law School and Business Degrees from both Columbia and Harvard Business Schools.

Thirty five percent of the people who live in Sedona can not afford the housing they live in.

This conclusion was arrived at by use of a formula for affordable housing commonly used in housing planning. This formula defines affordable housing as housing that costs no more than 30% of a householdís gross monthly income. In addition to the people living in Sedona in houses they canít afford, there are many people who work in Sedona but do not live here, perhaps because they know they canít afford to live in Sedona.

Sedonaís government has decided that the cost of housing is a subject that needs to be examined. To that end it has appointed an eight person Housing Advisory Committee to help develop new recommendations for Sedona housing. This committee, which is being assisted by a professional consultant, has met and the process has started with a housing survey.

Thinking about this subject has made me realize that creating more affordable housing in Sedona is far more complicated then it first appeared to be. In preparing this column, I talked with some of the people concerned with this subject. I asked them some basic questions, which I am repeating here:

1. For whom should we be trying to create affordable housing? No one that I have talked with thinks it is feasible to create affordable housing for low income households in Sedona. In determining eligibility, a benchmark that might be used by the City is households with income between 60% and 80% of Sedonaís medium income. My best guess is that in Sedona this would mean households with annual income between approximately $24,000 and $32,000.

2. Where does the money come from to build affordable housing? The good news is that some of this money can come from a) federal grants from agencies such as HUD, b) from tax credits that are part of the IRS income tax credit program and c) from private foundations. In addition, the City could decide to waive some or all housing development fees.

3. What would affordable housing look like? I have been told that it could be attractive (there are good-looking architectural designs available), but I also believe it would be dense housing. By dense, I mean anywhere from seven detached units per acre to 19 multifamily attached units per acre. If I am right, this is where affordable housing collides with our community planís commitment to open space.

4. Where in Sedona do you put affordable housing? It is extremely unlikely that forest land could be used for private development. US Forest Service Plan Amendment 12 prohibits it (with some escape clauses) and the City of Sedona Strategic Plan opposes it. So where then? Some affordable housing may fit within current zoning. If it doesnít, then affordable housing proposals must address a significant reality, which is that building affordable housing in any quantity would require current zoning to be changed to permit more dense housing. This has made me realize that if the City of Sedona is going to encourage a meaningful increase in the amount of new affordable housing, then citizens (and visitors) will have to live with a reduction in open space. This reality forced me to rethink my position on this issue.

The main argument supporting affordable housing that I have read and agree with is that the lack of affordable housing in Sedona forces long commutes on people we want to work here, but who canít afford to live here. This, in turn, lessens the quality time at home for these commuters, lessens their ties to Sedona and increases use of our roads leading into and out of Sedona. To this, I would add that there are certain key jobs in Sedona that I believe the community would particularly benefit from having the job holders living here.

I think it would be to our advantage to have Sedonaís firefighters, police and teachers living in Sedona. In the event of a major fire or major police emergency, the closer these defenders live to the emergency, the faster we can get a quick, large response. Where teachers live can also be important to our younger citizens and their parents. The nearer Sedonaís teachers live to their students, the greater the opportunity for after-school student-teacher interface.

No doubt some of you have job holders in other job categories you believe should also be included as key individuals we should encourage to live in our community. The problem is that people in these jobs generally are not paid high salaries and may find it tough to find housing in Sedona at a cost they can afford.

There is a way to make it easier for Sedona firefighters, police and teachers to live in Sedona that would not reduce open space. The Fire District, the City of Sedona and the School District, respectively, could change the compensation structure for those professionals who are under their jurisdiction by adding a meaningful financial housing subsidy for any regular employees who decide to live in the community where they work. This could increase our taxes, which is never pleasant or easy, but perhaps we should consider it as a better option than giving up open space.

As I think about the subject of affordable housing, I wonder how many of the people we may target for new affordable housing will actually move into it if it is built. The fact that we build new affordable housing may not result in relocating many of the 35% of households now living in housing that cost more than 30% of their income. It also may not result in relocating many of the nonresidents who commute to work in Sedona.

Before we increase density and give up open space, we need to understand how many of our citizens and commuter workers are likely to relocate to whatever new affordable housing is created in Sedona. Perhaps it would be helpful to examine who purchased Nepenthe housing (which I think would fall close to the category of affordable housing) when it first came on the market. What percent of these homes were sold to then-current Sedona residents or worker commuters and what percent were sold to newcomers?

There is another problem. Even if current Sedona residents or worker commuters want to move into the new affordable housing and the developer would agree to give preference to them over newcomers, I am not sure that the fair housing laws would permit preferential treatment. I worry that if we give up open space to build affordable housing that it might be filled with new people moving here, which I do not consider as a good reason for giving up open space.

Every decision of importance is a balance between competing needs and desires. Affordable housing is an important issue, but it is not the only important issue that the citizens of Sedona are concerned about. Our city government must balance the need for affordable housing and the negative impact it may have on other important issues, particularly preserving open space. Before it acts, our City government should be clear about the following:

1. Who new affordable housing is targeted to benefit;

2. Whether there is an effective way to deliver this benefit to the targeted group of recipients;

3. What are the compromises with competing important issues (especially open space) that would be necessary to achieve the goal; and

4. How do the citizens of Sedona feel about whatever action plan is being considered by the City for adoption?

I believe it would be both fair and wise for the City government, perhaps under the sponsorship of the Housing Advisory Committee, to get as much citizen input as practicable on the recommendations developed.

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