by Rick Langenberg:
The ongoing controversy over affordable housing in Woodland Park has returned to the forefront again, with another aggressive initiative to establish more dwellings for local workers by loosening the building rules. But based on past housing pursuits, the prospects of getting anything done on a large-scale basis don’t appear overly promising due to one overriding hurdle: Not in My Neighborhood. The political realities in Woodland Park, where property rights are considered a top priority, have put a damper on past bids for new housing policies. But at the same time, the issue, and a growing gap in the demand and availability for more affordable/workforce housing, is commanding much attention.
And this time the pro-housing effort is being pushed by WP Councilman John Schaffer, a key leader of the Habitat for Humanity of Teller County group.
To date, the Habitat has been one of the lone Woodland Park success stories in paving the way for the construction of affordable and attractive units for local workers. The group recently celebrated ground-breaking for the second phase of a major $450,000 Habitat town home development in Forest Edge, and Habitat has constructed 24 homes for qualified applicants throughout the county since 2000. But Schaffer last week made it clear this isn’t enough. Moreover, he threw out the idea of facilitating more affordable dwellings by permitting property owners and builders to add accessory units at current residential properties in Woodland Park, similar to what is done in many other towns.
During a detailed presentation, he outlined the serious crisis the city now faces. According to a 2011 Woodland Park Housing Assessment, more than 40 percent of local residents fall below 80 percent of the average median income needed to afford a dwelling in Woodland Park. And this problem is getting worse with the number of new workers in Woodland Park in service and retail jobs. With the current inventory of housing in Woodland, a family must make about $62,500 a year to afford a home or pay monthly rent, based on this study. The problem is accentuated by the city’s lack of multi-family dwellings and more urban-like developments that permit higher density.
Accessory Dwelling Option
Schaffer proposed upping the prospects of more affordable housing by allowing for the construction of accessory units, which would be attached or detached from single family homes in existing neighborhoods. “Accessory dwelling units are a popular way to create low and moderate-income housing for homeowners and renters,” said Schaffer. Schaffer described this addition as something traditionally associated with mother-in-law apartments or second units. According to his proposal, these smaller accessory units would feature a separate kitchen, living and bathrooms, separate from the regular home. Plus, he stressed that this proposal would set the stage for affordable housing in existing neighborhoods with no public costs. He said these accessory units are common in other municipalities.
Schaffer’s enthusiasm toward affordable housing was given high marks, but this particular plan got a skeptical response by several council members. “That changes the character of the neighborhood,” blasted Councilman Gary Brovetto, when explaining the end-result of allowing accessory dwellings inside Woodland subdivisions. “That is not the role of government.” He anticipated much opposition from property owners.
Mayor Pro Tem Eric Smith agreed with these concerns, but believes the concept of accessory dwellings has some merit in certain sections of Woodland Park, such as the downtown. “We need to look at ways we can tackle this,” said Smith, who is involved in developing a proposed multi-family project in the downtown development district. “I like the idea of looking at it.”
Newly-appointed Councilman Ken Matthews also urged caution, but agreed that affordable housing must get addressed. “To change the zoning (of a residential neighborhood) is not going to be a popular thing,” said Matthews. He cited the fact that many people purchased their property in Woodland Park with certain expectations based on the land use rules at the time. And if they get altered now in mid-stream, it could impact their property rights, explained Matthews. But at the same time, he agreed that the city needs to examine ways it can make affordable housing projects work locally by lowering fees and building costs. The issue is getting more attention. All five of the candidates who entered the competition for an appointed council seat cited affordable housing as a top priority.
For the last 15 years, the city has considered various ways to facilitate affordable housing locally with limited success. At one point, the city commissioned a group to study the issue in detail. In 2011, the planning staff proposed allocating about 400 high priority taps for these types of projects. This plan called for significant zoning changes along certain, non-residential tracts of land, with the condition that developers/builders or landowners dedicate a portion of future projects on these lands towards affordable housing units.
But in every case, political realities have killed these efforts, with the council nixing these pro-housing initiatives. In addition, the city’s anti-incentives law, which bars the offering of any development-related incentives, has become a stumbling block, along with concerns regarding limited water resources. For the most part, city leaders have preferred to have the private sector solve the housing problem, but that hasn’t occurred.
The council last week agreed to let the city staff explore Schaffer’s plan in more detail and to analyze what other cities are doing to facilitate more affordable housing projects. A future workshop is expected to be held between the planning commission and the city council.