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State officials: Affordable housing a perplexing problem

Pricey studio apartments are not a viable solution to blue collar workers, Colorado representative says at forum
Housing was the subject of one of numerous talking points at the Durango Community Recreation Center on Saturday during a League of Women Voters forum hosting Sen. Cleave Simpson, right, of District 6, and Rep. Barbara McLachlan, of District 59. The state officials engage with residents after a Colorado Legislature Update presented by the League of Women Voters Chapters of La Plata and Montezuma counties. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Colorado Rep. Barbara McLachlan (D) said expensive studio apartments are not the solution to Durango’s affordable and workforce housing crisis, but communities need to come together to determine what is, she said at a League of Women Voters of La Plata County forum held on Saturday.

The forum, held at Durango Community Recreation Center, featured McLachlan and Colorado Sen. Cleave Simpson (R), who answered attendees’ questions and written questions.

One question centered on how to address the housing crisis affecting teachers, firefighters, police officers and other blue-collar workers and low-income earners in the Durango area and across the state.

Laurie Meininger, left, president of the League of Women Voters La Plata County, moderates the Colorado Legislature Update with Sen. Cleave Simpson, of District 6, and Rep. Barbara McLachlan, of District 59. On how to address the affordable housing shortage in Durango and across the state, both state officials said it is a challenging topic to tackle. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

McLachlan said state funding for housing has been set aside for local control to allow municipal and county governments to implement services such as revolving loans (one homebuyer borrows money, buys a home and pays the money back to be lent to another homebuyer), but the needs of a rural community such as Bayfield differ from the needs of an urban metropolis such as Denver.

She was quick to call out the River Roost apartments, a 47-unit studio apartment complex next door to Applebee’s in the 800 block of Camino del Rio in Durango, as an example of “affordable” housing that doesn’t actually address the lack of affordable homes.

“We need more housing. But I’m not sure we need to tell teachers they need to have a family and a studio apartment so they can afford it,” she said.

She said affordable housing is the No. 1 issue she heard about from residents when she was door-knocking on her campaign trail, and a plan to spend money locally is needed to address the housing shortage.

Land is expensive, construction materials are expensive and shipping those materials is expensive, she said. But there is opposition to getting government involved in any solutions.

She said when she first ran for public office, involving government in supplying affordable housing was a questionable prospect. But now, she asks herself who or what is supposed to get involved.

“If it’s a community, we leave it up to these people who built this place that’s (a) really expensive studio apartment – is that what we need to do?” she said.

Sen. Cleave Simpson, of District 6, and Rep. Barbara McLachlan, of District 59, high-five at the end of a Colorado Legislature Update presented by the League of Women Voters Chapters of La Plata and Montezuma counties on Saturday at the Durango Community Recreation Center. McLachlan said pricey studio apartments are no solution to Durango’s affordable housing shortage, and Simpson said well-intentioned proposals for climate change-focused housing regulations are driving construction costs skyward. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

She asked if more solutions similar to the Animas View Mobile Home Park Co-op are needed. The mobile home park was purchased by residents who formed a cooperative and became the first community in the state of Colorado to gain ownership of their homes and land under a law passed in 2020 that allows mobile home owners the chance to own their homes and the land they sit on.

“I love that our mobile home park owners were able to buy their places and they now have an affordable place to live,” she said. “That was really great legislation that came through.”

She said she is open to suggestions of how to use local control to enable homeownership without government involvement, but meeting costs as high as $430 million would require “a pretty big bake sale.”

“I think our community needs to work together to say this is an important issue for everybody,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how wealthy you are or what you have.”

A forum attendee challenged McLachlan about government regulations related to environment and climate change that drive the cost of housing upward. She said a balance must be struck between taking care of the environment where communities live and access to affordable housing and good transportation.

Simpson said he wishes there was as clear path forward, but despite good intentions to address and mitigate climate change, the requirements that come attached with those efforts make housing less affordable.

He said a troubling bill presented last year would have required all governing bodies to adopt an international energy conservation code in order to adjust land use regulations.

“I just said, ‘I appreciate what we’re trying to accomplish, but you have to be mindful of what that does to the cost of housing,’” he said. “... You’re going to build now and add $70,000 to the cost of a 1,700 square foot house, you make it less affordable.”

But public-private partnerships that provide developers access to lower tax rate municipal bonds can be used to create more housing for middle-income earners, he said.

Housing was but one topic at the League of Women Voters forum on Saturday. McLachlan and Simpson addressed other questions about test scores in public schools, law enforcement versus mental health care and agriculture.

A recording of the forum is available online at https://bit.ly/3yj7DrL


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