Just over 20 people crowded around tables in a conference room in the Moonshot at NACET building near Buffalo Park last week.
Earlier this year, the same room was turned into an emergency operations center as county and city staff worked on the Museum Fire. But last week, city staff and members of the public were working to find solutions to another threat to Flagstaff: the lack of affordable housing.
The effort was the first meeting of the city’s new affordable housing commission, which Flagstaff City Council created in April with the purpose of making policy recommendations to the council.
The city council specifically designed the commission to include members of the public knowledgeable on different aspects of the housing issue and chose commissioners out of a pool of 33 applicants in September.
Six of the commission’s 12 members work in various parts of the real estate industry, including realtors, a builder and a lender, as well as local developer Brian Rhoton, one of the owners of Capstone Homes.
The commission also includes three members who work on issues of low income housing and three members to act as community representatives.
Devonna McLaughlin, the CEO of Housing Solutions of Northern Arizona, and Ross Altenbaugh, the Executive Director of Flagstaff Shelter Services, both hold seats on the commission.
Nicole Elleman, who works for the Guidance Center, and Catherine Esquivel, who was hired by the city last year as its first indigenous liaison, also hold seats.
Perhaps the most unusual member of the commission, however, is Kai Beattie, a senior at Northern Arizona University majoring in sociology.
Beattie, who is researching housing affordability in cities similar to Flagstaff, said she first heard about the creation of the commission through her faculty advisor, who encouraged her to apply.
“It really surprised me when I found out I got appointed,” Beattie said, adding it may be a challenge to hold the commission seat while also finishing her senior year. “But at the end of the day, this issue is what matters to me.”
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Beattie said she believes she may bring a specific perspective to the commission as a student at NAU who works and rents off campus.
While living in Flagstaff, Beattie said it has been eye-opening to see how the university she attends has been an indirect cause of housing frustration. As an example, Beattie pointed to the efforts by the property owner to push out the residents of the Arrowhead Village mobile home community, originally to make room for student housing.
After successfully resisting a first push by the property owner to evict them, residents were forced to leave their homes in June 2018.
“It really changed me,” Beattie said. “I never wanted to see people have to fight to stay where they lived in our community.”
Sarah Darr, director of the city’s housing authority, said the commission’s first task will be deciding whether to recommend the city council put a second affordable housing bond item on the ballot in 2020.
The deadline for the council to make that decision is spring of 2020, so the commission may need to make the recommendation sooner rather than later.
After that, staff may need to go back before the council to ask what the commission should focus on next, Darr said, “because the list [of topics Council] gave us is about a decade’s worth of work.”
If an affordable housing bond ends up on the ballot and is passed by voters, the new commission will also have a role in guiding and overseeing how that money is spent.
“One of Council’s goals in creating this commission is to create a greater brain trust of community members, because we do get very mixed messages,” Darr said.
Although housing affordability has long been a problem in Flagstaff, many of the proposed solutions have proven to be unpopular with the public when Council discusses taking action. For example, the city council had looked to build affordable housing on a 3-acre parcel of land at the intersection of Schultz Pass Road and Fort Valley, but after a public outcry, its future may be decided by voters in 2020.
Since the commission’s creation, Darr said when those discussions occur and Council is looking to take action, the public will know the policy changes have been vetted and recommended by members of the public knowledgeable on housing and affordability.
As such, Darr said the commission may provide important legitimacy for council action on affordable housing.
Adrian Skabelund can be reached at the office at email@example.com, by phone at (928) 556-2261 or on Twitter @AdrianSkabelund.