The photo was classic Flagstaff: A happy family posing in front of a field of yellow sunflowers with the San Francisco Peaks in the background.
But the subsequent story revealed just how ephemeral those views have become: Part of the field at the corner of Fort Valley and Schultz Pass roads is on track to be developed for 15 to 20 units of low-income housing.
We say “on track” because there are several more procedural and financial hoops for the city to jump through before the first spade of dirt is turned.
And such is the tenacity of opposing neighbors and their access to either the ballot box or the courts -- or both -- that nothing can ever be described as a done deal in Flagstaff.
But for now, there is a 5-2 Council majority for a project that all agree is badly needed – the disagreement is, as usual, over the location. There are already 800 subsidized rental units for low-income households scattered around Flagstaff, yet the waiting list has hundreds of qualified applicants. The council might have held out for a project that targeted households with slightly higher incomes who are all but priced out of the single-family home market and don’t qualify for subsidies. But with incomes no more than $37,680 for a family of four, this still qualifies as workforce housing and is not just reserved for the elderly or the disabled. (Remember, more than a fifth of all children in Flagstaff come from households living below the poverty line.)
The opponents, primarily neighbors, could marshal logical arguments, including traffic congestion, marred natural beauty and the loss of open space. But as the last open parcel at a four-corner intersection on a major highway, the three-acre tract has easy access, and the majority of the field right behind it, according to the owner, won’t be developed anytime soon. There will also be a two-story height limit, just like in the adjoining neighborhoods.
There are, of course, plenty of houses just across the road in Cheshire or in Valley Crest, so another 15 to 20 can’t be blamed for sprawl and congestion. The winter holiday gridlock is caused by thousands of snowplayers all exiting the corridor at once, not the locals trying to weave their way into and out of the traffic stream.
But for the sake of argument, let’s say the preferred location for any new housing project – affordable or not -- should be as close to existing services as possible. Yet when the city has tried to convert close-in parcels at the public works yard and at the north end of San Francisco Street, it has been met with the same fierce neighborhood resistance. Infill, it seems, works on paper in the regional plan, just not in practice when the latest arrivals get to define what is compatible going forward.
A complicating factor in the case of the Fort Valley project is the need for the city to own the land initially if it is to control deed restrictions that keep rents low for as long as 30 years. But the neighbors have known for more than a decade this parcel was targeted for affordable housing – it was purchased with funds dedicated for just such a purpose and it is zoned for development. If opponents want to retain the view from that particular intersection, they need to make an offer the city wouldn’t likely refuse. But even then, the city would be obligated to take the funds and buy another parcel to start the affordable housing process all over again.
As we have said in the past, the city of Flagstaff’s affordable housing problem is much greater than projects scattered across the city, even if they do add up to 800 low-income rental units, plus hundreds more owned by the Flagstaff Housing Authority. Those are just the households in the city earning below 60 percent of the median income. Most developers aren’t putting up apartment and townhouse complexes for middle-income families, instead targeting college students who rent by the bedroom. If the city wants to reconfigure that part of the housing supply, it will need to offer developers financial incentives similar to the ones they are getting for low-income housing.
But that could be very expensive – there are few federal tax credits available to builders of middle-income rental housing. However, when the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment of $1,100 a month eats up 40 percent of the gross pay of someone earning the median city wage of $16 an hour, something eventually has to give – which is perhaps why the new Flagstaff minimum wage of $15 an hour by 2021 won handily at the ballot box in 2016. At least one national survey ranks Flagstaff the least affordable of 191 metropolitan areas when incomes are compared with the cost of living.
A larger issue looming over any development project in Flagstaff is the growing frustration with traffic that at times exceeds carrying capacity – ie., congestion. It’s natural that Fort Valley residents in particular should be concerned anytime more growth is touted. Flagstaff has nowhere near the level of gridlock in places like Los Angeles and Atlanta, but it’s not supposed to, either. Most of the growth in construction, traffic and jobs is being driven by the enrollment surge at NAU, with a skewed housing market one of the results. Low-income housing projects aren’t the problem or the solution, but they improve the quality of life for a significant part of the population. Flagstaff and its neighborhoods should pursue them when they can.