Mayor Coral Evans has called the issue of affordable housing a "crisis in our community." Her comment comes after the council meeting on Jan. 8 in which members wrestled with giving up what many consider park land, and seizing property, to help address the issue.
Council decided to take a closer look at the possibility of using eminent domain to acquire the parcel of land at 703 Blackbird Roost and using the land to build a permanent affordable housing development. The idea had first been brought up by Evans in November of last year.
“According to state statutes, we can look at condemning this piece of property and using it for the purposes of affordable housing,” Evans said, adding that she does not suggest seizing the property lightly. “I myself own two pieces of property here in the city of Flagstaff. My family owns property in Arizona as well.”
The owner of the property, in this case Kings House Inc., would receive compensation based on a fair market appraisal of the property’s value.
Kings House Inc. bought the property in 2017 when it was still home to about 56 families living in mobile homes, many of whom were primarily Spanish speakers and had been living in the village for as long as 12 years. But that didn’t stop Kings House from evicting residents on July 1, 2018 before putting the parcel back on the market, for which they are now asking for $6 million.
The parcel is currently zoned for mobile homes and local realtor Rick Lopez suggested Council keep it zoned as such rather than seizing the land.
“The council does not owe the owner of this property zoning, so you already have some leverage on how this property can be used, because you control the zoning,” Lopez said. “This owner is going to want to you to rezone this property to something that will yield a higher dollar amount.”
But councilmember Jim McCarthy said he worried that if the city doesn’t take the land, it may go wasted for long periods of time despite the fact that it is zoned for what he called an affordable housing use.
In the end, Council decided to take a closer look at condemning the property, something the city was already doing as part of the Rio de Flag flood control project, according to city manager Barbara Goodrich.
The council moved in the opposite direction on a piece of property the city had, up until last year, been using as the public works yard, and that many nearby residents consider part of Thorpe Park.
This discussion first occurred in 2016 when the city had planned to sell the land to help pay for the construction of the new works yard. But at the time, that idea was shot down by residents who had feared that the property might go to a developer and become yet another large scale student housing development.
This would not have to be the case this time, Councilmember Jamie Whelan said.
As the city still owns the land, Whelan said the council could choose to develop only a portion of it for smaller affordable housing units while leaving the rest as green space. A small amount of affordable housing on the site was an idea Whelan first suggested in August of last year.
But residents of the Townsite neighborhood, which borders the former public works yard, still objected to the use of what they consider park land for housing, and residents came out in significant numbers to share their thoughts with council.
Rose Houk, a Townsite resident and member of the organization Friends of Thorpe Park, said she and other residents don’t oppose affordable housing, but turning park land into housing would set a dangerous precedent.
“Affordable housing is a big issue,” Houk said. “This idea that we're elitists, that we're looking down on [affordable housing], that’s very disturbing.”
Because the land is not zoned for housing, it would be far more effort than the small number of homes would be worth, Houk said, especially as the Townsite neighborhood is already contributing to affordable housing through Clark Homes and the Townsite land trust.
Nearby residents also say that the land was deeded to the city as park land in perpetuity, but the city attorney’s office disagrees. According to city attorney Sterling Solomon, the property was purchased in 1923 with no restrictions on use.
In the 1940s, parts of the park were sold off for residential subdivisions and in 1947, the city approved the construction of the public works yard.
Only in 1957 did the council adopt a resolution restricting Thorpe Park to park, recreation and museum uses, Solomon said, but added the council always has the ability to change any ordinance it has previously put in place. In addition, although the council passed the resolution, the city continued to use the area as a public works yard for 61 years.
Nonetheless, the majority of council agreed with Houk and decided against continuing a discussion on the future of the yard.
Councilmember Austin Aslan said he could not support the public park land being developed into housing. Across the western states, development interests chip away at public lands in the name of progress, Aslan said, and this is something he could not support.
The mayor took a different stance.
“So far the city council has attempted to do affordable housing for the last four years and every single time a location is brought forward, there are individuals who live in that neighborhood -- no matter what neighborhood it is -- that [say they are] for affordable housing, that talk about the need for affordable housing, talk about it being a great idea but the wrong location,” Evans said.