How tall is too tall?
Small is too small?
Dense is too dense?
As housing and land costs continue to rise in Flagstaff, buyers and renters are sending signals they are willing to live with less if it will bring down their monthly mortgage or rent.
And so, as we’ve reported in recent weeks, builders are responding with smaller – even tiny – new houses and with jam-packed rental complexes that grow up, not out. And city planners look to increase the number of regional “activity” centers that can accommodate new dormitory-style student housing, albeit farther away from NAU’s Mountain Campus.
Pushback from the neighbors who live in one-story houses and low-rise apartments is growing – blocking my view and taking my curbside parking space are bad enough; but casting a perpetual five-story shadow over my living room window in blue-sky Flagstaff is beyond the pale.
Even in a national park gateway town like Tusayan, where private land is too scarce and expensive for traditional single-family housing, voters rejected an attempt to build higher. The town council, all with connections to a major tourism company and developer, said the extra height would allow for affordable housing; the opponents, who prevailed by 11 votes, said the skyline is high enough and the taller buildings would most likely turn out to be resort condo towers.
So what is Flagstaff to do? The concept of tiny, 400-square-foot houses is already in play – they are called trailer parks, but at least one owner sees more money to be made in selling out to a commercial developer. Arrowhead Village on Blackbird Roost has long provided 50 units of affordable housing of a sort – the park infrastructure needs lots of repairs and many of the trailers are old and substandard. But an upgrade costs money, and the tenants don’t have a lot nor is the city pitching in – or making a counteroffer.
And then there are the second units springing up along back alleys – converted garages and new cottages alike. They are the new tiny houses on what are essentially half-lots that rent more cheaply than traditional single-family homes.
RAZED AND REBUILT BIGGER
More common, as we’ve reported, are the developers who raze old single-family houses and, if allowed by zoning, put up triplexes and fourplexes, then rent them to students by the bedroom. The result, along South Fountaine and elsewhere in Southside, is a lot that suddenly contains nine or 12 tenants, sometimes each with a car. The individual bedroom payment might be cheaper than a room on campus, but the living arrangements aren’t very appealing to local families and non-student members of the workforce.
So as the city council wrestles in the coming months with the commercial rezoning request for Arrowhead Village that, if granted, would result in the eviction of 50 poor households, they will no doubt encounter mixed messages. Flagstaff might honor living smaller and more simply in principle, but not in real life when the denser, taller and more affordable infill projects are next door or right down the street. Single-family zoning has a mixed record of cheaper but not very inspiring tract housing. Adding more density to those tracts without upgrades in street carrying capacity, mass transit and off-site parking might not seem worth the savings to many in Flagstaff. And what if downsizing and upping the density simply means lower-priced units will be snatched up by investors and second-home buyers first?
GROW THE ECONOMY
The other way to make housing more affordable, of course, is to increase the ability of local buyers and renters to afford it. A higher minimum wage addresses only one end of the housing rent squeeze. But there is still a vast middle group of working families in Flagstaff who are either underhoused or paying more than they can reasonably afford for decent housing. A more direct and lasting path toward affordability is a municipal focus on expanding and supporting higher-paying economic sectors while making sure that key components of the workforce like teachers are paid much more than they presently earn.
That will take a sea-change in public attitudes toward our teaching professionals and others. But the side benefit would be an end to the need for tiny incomes to chase tiny housing. Living dramatically smaller should be strictly a lifestyle choice, not a financial necessity. Flagstaff will be an even longer way from realizing the former if it gives in to the latter.