Building Community: Are we a community or a commodity?
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
One of our elected officials recently posed this question. It resonates because it’s exactly the question that needs to be answered. By the community. By City Council. By county commissioners. By the Chamber. And by anyone who lives or owns property or a business in, or around our town. And in the midst of our housing crisis, what’s our answer: Is Steamboat Springs a community or a commodity?
Do we value more the opportunities we have to connect with and nurture ourselves and each other and our natural surroundings? Or do we value more the opportunities we have to maximize and exploit our natural surroundings and what we and those who came before us have built in this beautiful valley?
If our answer is we’re a commodity, we should just keep doing what we’re doing and push any affordable/attainable housing solutions on down the river with all the tubers. No one will need to be held accountable. But, if our answer is we’re a community, we need to quickly and finally address our housing crisis. And we all need to be held accountable.
In 2016, the Routt County Community Housing Steering Committee was formed by the Yampa Valley Housing Authority to identify and analyze solutions that could mitigate obstacles to housing. The committee was made up of locally elected and appointed officials, business leaders and community members and endorsed and authorized by Steamboat Springs City Council and the Routt County Board of Commissioners. Their problem statement was simple: Housing demand is outpacing supply.
The steering committee’s final report was released in December 2016. It identified obstacles to housing development, which included:
• City and county planning and zoning processes.
• Building code restrictions.
• Costs of building new supply.
• The vacation rental marketplace (Airbnb and VRBO).
It also identified the consequences of not acting, which included:
• Loss of workforce across all segments (out-migration) and employee turnover.
• Loss of businesses due to inability to adequately staff.
• Loss of “community character.”
In their conclusion, the steering committee reiterated their problem statement: Housing supply was not keeping up with demand, leading to rapidly increasing home prices and rental rates. The environment of prolonged home price and rental rate appreciation was pricing out many local wage earners from our communities — leading to a loss of community character and economic competitiveness.
It was their recommendation that the city of Steamboat Springs, Routt County, the Yampa Valley Housing Authority, businesses and community members in Routt County establish policies and take significant action to stimulate the production of housing supply to meet the demand.
So, how have we done since the steering committee’s final report almost five years ago?
The identified obstacles are still firmly entrenched (i.e. little progress), and we’re seeing the identified consequences (i.e. community or commodity). And both the obstacles and the consequences have grown due to the pandemic in the past 18 months.
As for the deliverables identified in the final report: The Yampa Valley Housing Authority identified and obtained a dedicated funding source and continues to deliver on our 5A commitment of delivering one affordable housing project per year.
However, the city of Steamboat has done little to amend planning, zoning and building code and processes to facilitate the development of more housing supply.
They have not empowered staff and the Planning Commission to further the community goals of providing housing supply. They have not funded or constructed the infrastructure to support development within the Urban Growth Boundary. They have not invested in roadway and transportation options in concert with new housing developments. And they have done very little to curtail the rapid growth of the Airbnb/VRBO takeover of our community.
And yet, City Council recently formed an affordable housing subcommittee to address the crisis and are talking about “doing something big” with the American Rescue Act dollars to address the local housing crisis. I propose that they just do what they were tasked with almost five years ago; this would be huge. Moving forward, we all need to focus on the areas we exclusively control.
So I’ll ask once again, is Steamboat a community or a commodity? The Yampa Valley Housing Authority firmly believes Steamboat is a community.
Roger Ashton is a board member of the Yampa Valley Housing Authority and past board president. He currently serves on the development committee. The “Building Community” column runs quarterly in Steamboat Pilot & Today.
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