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'Yes in my backyard,' voices supporting housing grow during public comments

Flagstaff City Hall

Flagstaff City Hall

Overwhelming opposition: that's the common experience at public meetings in Flagstaff discussing newly proposed housing developments.

Standing before Flagstaff City Council or speaking to the Planning and Zoning Commission, neighbors will cite everything from increased traffic to a changing neighborhood character as reasons not to build.

It's a phenomenon often referred to derogatorily as 'NIMBYs,' standing for 'not in my back yard.'

But for the last year, during development hearings about projects such as Aura Flagstaff, Presidio condominiums and changes to city zoning, a new voice has begun making itself heard.

Sometimes describing themselves as YIMBYs (standing for 'yes in my back yard'), many residents have begun making their own views heard at public meetings, expressing the need for new housing in the face of an affordability crisis.

The growing sentiment has come as part of an increasing trend in cities across the county as some residents push to build more housing.

Cristy Zeller, a Flagstaff resident of 22 years and the executive director of Haven Montessori School, is one of those members of the public who has begun writing elected leaders before every meeting, or tuning in live, to voice support for housing projects as they come up.

Zeller said the issue of affordable housing has been on her radar as long as she has lived in Flagstaff and is a constant concern for Haven Montessori.

“One of our biggest challenges at my school has been to attract workforce -- people who can actually afford to live here and provide the services that we all want for our families and education,” Zeller said. “I mean, it's just frustrating and discouraging that it just seems like there's never any progress on these issues.”

Zeller’s view, like the view of many of those who have started tuning into council meetings, is based on fairly basic economics: If scarcity drives the cost of housing up, then building more housing should help to do the opposite.

But Zeller said in her experience, that view is not always expressed by residents to council when a project is being considered. Instead, the sentiment expressed is often, "yes, we need housing, but not here," she said.

Zeller said she and others are hoping to change that, both by educating the public and making sure elected leaders hear those sentiments before taking a vote.

The new voice during public comments is certainly noticeable, said Flagstaff City Councilmember Adam Shimoni.

“I do feel like I've witnessed a growing group in the community of voices organizing and coming together to advocate for housing, and not just the voices of the neighbors who are concerned about any given project,” Shimoni said.

Shimoni said he thinks that sentiment being expressed during public comments can make a big difference for councilmembers as they weigh a decision.

Even if a councilmember is very supportive of a new project, and believe its construction will benefit the community as a whole, Shimoni said it can be difficult to support developments that might be controversial.

“[It] gives us councilmembers the ability to vote ‘yes’ on projects that maybe an adjacent neighborhood is opposing. It lets us know that there is a strong base of voters in our community that support us in these types of decisions,” Shimoni said. “It's a lot easier to make that difficult decision, especially when it's a controversial decision in the eyes of the public, if you know that there's a population and that the community has your back.”

At this point, Zeller said the effort is less of a formal group than simply a number of likeminded individuals, many of whom sit on city commissions, coming together on an issue.

A ‘Flagstaff for Affordable Housing’ Facebook group has existed for more than a year, Zeller said, largely serving as a forum to discuss and educate one another on the issues.

But just last week, a small cadre of Flagstaff residents braved a cold and blustery evening and huddled around a table on the patio of The Annex.

A humble group of less than a dozen people in all, the residents discussed next steps and strategies moving forward to best influence affordable housing in Flagstaff.

Zeller said they hope to educate the public and create a broader movement that can voice support for projects as they come before the city leaders for review, as well as advocate for changes within city code to reduce the cost of housing and construction within the city.

Adrian Skabelund can be reached by phone at (928) 556-2261, by email at askabelund@azdailysun.com or on Twitter at @AdrianSkabelund. 

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