Durango’s seven City Council candidates agreed housing affordability is a top issue but differed about how they would use their four years in office to address the issue.
The candidates are running for three open seats on City Council during the April 6 elections. Six are newcomers to the council, and one, Melissa Youssef, is wrapping up her fourth year in office. If elected, they will take a leading role in addressing the record-low housing stock and rising prices.
“The challenge to building affordable housing ... there really is no one-sentence answer,” said Dan Burkhart, owner of Burkhart Planning and Permitting.
The topic is complicated: It gets broken down by renters versus homeowners, affordability, attainability and workforce housing – each with different definitions and possible solutions.
When it comes to homeownership, housing inventory was already low at the start of 2020, but when the pandemic hit, Durango was quickly recognized as the place to be and the stock dropped even lower, said Kelly Kniffin, Durango real estate broker, in an email to The Durango Herald.
“There is currently a one-month supply of homes,” she said, referring to single-family homes in the city.
The average price of in-town homes also increased by 11% in 2020, compared with 2019, and the number sold increased by 30% over the same time period, according to the Durango Area Association of Realtors.
Not everyone is able to break into Durango’s housing market – that includes people such as teachers, police officers, construction workers and food service workers.
Someone who earns about $66,000, or 80% to 120% of the household area median income, would be able to afford a home that costs between $240,000 and $360,000.
“Between $240,000 and $360,000, there’s probably not a lot available,” said Scott Shine, city planning manager, during a City Council study session in January.
For renters, the same pricing and availability issues apply.
To try to address the issue, Durango launched its Fair Share Ordinance in 2009, which required developers to create affordable housing equal to 16% of the units in a project.
But the city also offered developers the option to pay a fee, which funds a mortgage assistance program, instead of building designated units. Most of the time, developers opt for the fee. The city’s largest development since the 1990s, Three Springs, negotiated a transfer fee instead of maintaining affordable housing, and another development, Twin Buttes, is requesting to do the same.
As council candidates staked out their positions on housing, three said the program should be revised: Frank Lockwood, Melissa Youssef and Olivier Bosmans. But when asked to choose one action to take in their four-year term, the candidates’ answers varied from easing the development approval process to hearing firsthand stories from renters.
Frank LockwoodFrank Lockwood, a retired attorney, said some aspects of Durango’s housing challenges might not be able to be entirely resolved.
“Sometimes, we just have a systemic challenge with the fact that housing prices in so many places have outpaced income,” Lockwood said. “Some of that is never going to be solved. That’s endemic to American society as it is right now.”
He said Durango’s documented problem is that the median income for a teacher, firefighter and police officer cannot afford a mortgage for the median price of a house in Durango.
His one goal would be to change Durango’s Fair Share Ordinance. The city has allowed developers to either pay a fee or build affordable housing, and they have opted for the fee, he said.
“That’s a program that has failed,” Lockwood said.
If elected, Lockwood would push to revise the program and make building affordable housing a prerequisite for developers who want to build housing in Durango, he said.
Melissa YoussefDurango’s housing issue requires different solutions for different types of housing – workforce, attainable and affordable, Youssef said.
“After four years of service on City Council, one of the things I recognize is that this is a difficult issue to address and it’s also extremely important,” she said.
First, the city needs to allocate more of staff members’ time and resources to addressing housing affordability.
“As a councilor, I set policy. I’m not going to be the one in there negotiating these potential acquisitions. We need staff focused on that,” Youssef said.
She said the city needs to continually evaluate its land-use and development codes and housing programs. It should revise its long-term affordable housing goals to reach them sooner.
“We need bold action here,” Youssef said. “In order to make headway in this area, we have to take more risks and think out of the box.”
Olivier BosmansOlivier Bosmans, a project manager and environmental consultant, supported the city’s actions so far, but he wanted to see faster action.
“This topic of housing is not new,” Bosmans said. “The houses 15 years ago were expensive.”
The approval process for developers needs to be more consistent and clear from the beginning, he said. The planning department needs to be more proactive with changing density regulations. The city should expand partnerships with the “housing authority” and Volunteers of America.
“I think the city is doing a good job,” he said. “But I would like to see more progress and decisions being made, instead of studies upon studies and meetings and discussions. There is no one solution for any of these topics.”
Jessika BuellJessika Buell, a small-business owner, listed increasing attainable housing opportunities as her top priority if elected.
“City Council has, already, affordable housing initiatives,” Buell said. “It’s not like this is a new thing. It’s about making sure it’s executed and funded.”
One way to increase affordable or attainable housing is to connect developers with funding, grants or incentives to encourage them to build more of it.
She wanted the city to pursue creative solutions, even if there is pushback. For example, in order to get Fort Lewis College, the city moved its airport – which people hated, she said. For housing, that could mean building taller buildings or using other spaces differently, she said.
“It’s OK to make bold, big decisions,” Buell said.
Harrison WendtHarrison Wendt, a youth camp coordinator, said he wanted to see workforce housing and would push for the creation of a Durango Renters Committee to advise City Council on issues and policies of importance to renters citywide.
“I believe we need to start hearing firsthand stories, from people who are struggling with the housing crisis the most,” Wendt said. “With the City Council having one of these committees ... (it) can increase our chances of hearing the real struggles of renters within the city.”
Lisa McCorryLisa McCorry, a landscaper, focused first on development and said it can be difficult for developers to “buy in” and build all the affordable housing needed in the city. She said she would push for streamlining approval processes for new projects.
“There’s a housing crisis here. We have to get creative and innovative to solve it if we want a multigenerational community,” McCorry said. “We can’t create the jobs, keep people here or bring people here, without affordable places for them to live.”
Seth FurtneySeth Furtney, a commercial property owner and former engineering projects manager, said the city’s housing plan includes many “promising” ideas, but the one that seems most feasible to achieve applies to accessory dwelling units.
If elected, Furtney would advocate for relaxing the city’s policies related to ADUs so people would be able to easily, legally and affordably offer housing to others.
He would also pursue ideas similar to other city efforts to address housing, such as reducing mandatory parking standards and changing density standards.
“All of those are the right thing to do,” Furtney said. “The ADU policy is the sweet spot. It’s an achievable and impactful opportunity.”