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Rental attainability report highlights extreme Flagstaff housing crisis

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Affordable housing

New houses are going up but the affordability is climbing out of reach of the average worker in Flagstaff.

Housing in Flagstaff is “the worst I've ever seen it,” said Devonna McLaughlin, executive director of Housing Solutions Northern Arizona (HSNA).

Her organization recently released its 2022 rental attainability report based on a survey of 50 market-rate apartment complexes (8,405 units) and 10 income-restricted complexes (730 units) between November 2021 and January.

The report summarizes a lot of data, and none of it looks good.

According to the report, a minimum-wage worker in Flagstaff would need to work about 87 hours a week in order to rent the average two-bedroom apartment. The average rate for such an apartment is currently about $1,758 a month.

By common definitions of affordable housing — where housing costs no more than 30% of one’s income — a household would have to be bringing in over $70,000 annually in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment. Per the 2019 census, the median individual income in Flagstaff was a mere $21,503. Quick math highlights the problem — it takes about four average wage-earners to afford one two-bedroom apartment.

This “extreme disparity” between incomes and housing has created a pervasive need across the community, McLaughlin said.

“It is not just low- and moderate-income households struggling,” she said. “It is along the housing continuum.”

For its part, HSNA is doing the best it can to keep up. Every day, they answer “phone call after phone call,” from people in need of housing, but recently they’ve had to refer people elsewhere.

“Our inventory is full,” McLaughlin said.

Lawrence Peterson is one such person in need who was unable to find assistance through HSNA. A longtime community member, Peterson is a veteran and best known for running the Flagstaff Folk Festival.

He went HSNA for housing assistance last summer.

“They weren’t taking anyone on their list,” Peterson said. “There’s such a population of need.”

Fortunately for Peterson, his status as a veteran has given him access to housing assistance not generally available, and through the organization Nation’s Finest, he’s been put up in the Motel 6 on Lucky Lane.

“If I wasn’t a vet, I don’t think I’d still be in town,” he said.

Peterson remains hopeful that an apartment will open up and is currently on the waiting lists of at least five different complexes across town. So far, though, nothing has shook loose.

“We’re overloaded,” he said, “[Affordable housing] is obsolete in this town. It’s full. The people that have it are not giving it up.”

Housing supply is definitely part of the issue, McLaughlin said, but added that the causes of Flagstaff’s housing problems are numerous and the solution is not as simple as creating more homes.

“We can't build our way out of the affordability crisis,” she said.

There is a need to increase supply but also address other issues, such as the prevalence of short-term rentals and vacation homes taking up precious housing stock in Flagstaff. Through SB 1350, the Arizona Legislature has stripped cities of the local authority to regulate short-term rentals, making it that much harder to fix a housing crisis.

Applying pressure at the state level is one of the many necessary actions needed address the problems in Flagstaff. This multi-faceted perspective is reflected in Flagstaff’s recently adopted 10-year housing plan, but McLaughlin remains skeptical about the efficacy of this plan.

“I think it’s a great first step,” McLaughlin said. “But if it sits on a shelf and we don’t actually do anything, then it doesn’t mean much. The plan is the easy step. I think the more complicated and harder step is to now do the work.”

Doing the work takes money, and Flagstaff residents are likely to see a bond measure to fund housing projects during this year’s election cycle. Whenever such a measure comes up, it is likely to be met by the common retort against affordable housing initiatives: “If you can’t afford it, don’t live here.”

To that argument, McLaughlin urges people to follow such a statement through to its logical conclusion.

“If you're talking about folks not being able to afford to live here, moving away, who are we talking about?” McLaughlin said. “We're talking about teachers. We’re talking about childcare workers. We're talking about 911 operators. What if the folks who check you out of the grocery store move away? Or folks who serve you food or clean the dishes at the restaurant move away? If you want those folks to be there to meet your needs as a consumer, then they need to be able to live with dignity and respect.”

Sean Golightly can be reached at sgolightly@azdailysun.com

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