Newsmaker Q&A: A priority on more affordable housing

With the promise of hundreds of thousands of new Northern Colorado residents over the next 40 years, Ken Waido, chief planner for the city of Fort Collins, has his work cut out for him. As rent rises and available affordable housing continues to disappear, we asked him where the city was planning to put the newcomers, and how it would make sure the growth doesn’t force out low-cost housing – along with those that depend on it.

Question: Tell us what the city is doing to ensure adequate affordable housing.

Answer: We are trying to be proactive. We’ve adopted development incentives for the private sector to assist in providing more affordable housing. One of the incentives is a zoning district that gives a density bonus for including affordable housing in a project; another is delaying the collection of some of the impact fees until a project is completed.

We also have financial assistance available for private-sector developers and nonprofit housing agencies to assist in ways they feel are appropriate. Most of the time the funds are used for land acquisitions or the payment of city fees. This financial assistance is distributed through a competitive process – the more a proposal addresses the city’s affordable housing strategic plan’s priorities, the more likely it will be funded.

The top priority is to increase the number of affordable rental units, but additional housing for people with special needs is also one of the top priorities.

The city has over 50 acres of land in a Land Bank Program that we have purchased and are holding and will sell in the future when land values go up, as the city’s boundary fills in and land becomes more scarce. When you limit the supply of land, the price goes up, and it will become more difficult to find available land for the development of affordable housing.

The city has also done a lot to minimize the time spent going through the development review process. Development by the private sector will ebb and flow. Right now we have a low vacancy rate, and as the private market responds, developers will build more apartment complexes, but they probably will overbuild and then the price of rent will drop again.

Q: How are you preparing for more people to be on the roads?

A: Part of Plan Fort Collins was the Master Transport Plan. And part of that deals with alternative modes of transportation. We’re trying to get people out of single-occupancy automobiles and into other modes of transportation.

We’re doing that through a number of ways. First, by land-use planning and bringing more goods and services and variety of housing types into neighborhoods. This way, people can find a place to live in a neighborhood with commercial goods and services that provide for daily needs without needing to drive to other parts of the community.

That’s not to say the plan doesn’t look at future street lane needs. Look at the Master Streets Plan and it tells you how wide streets are going to be in order to deal with future traffic volumes. But transportation planning is a multi-faceted approach, rather than just adding more lanes.

Q: Recent news reports pointed out a few of the problems associated with trailer park closures. What is the city doing to ensure that the next trailer park to close doesn’t leave residents homeless?

A: We’re working on a strategic plan that looks at what happens when parks close. The plan is looking at all types of affordable housing but is obviously focusing-in on mobile home parks. People who live in mobile home parks are unique because first of all, many of them own their home, but they don’t own the land on which it sits. If the owner of the park decides to close or repurpose the land, you have the issue of what to do with the residents.

You need to find spaces in another mobile home park or the people have to move into a different type of housing. Some people live in their mobile home because it’s the lifestyle they choose – it gives them a sense of pride and ownership. But if the park closes, where do they go? There aren’t a lot of vacancies in Northern Colorado.

We’re looking at ways to stabilize parks to reduce the economic pressures on owners to convert them into other types of land uses. One of the techniques we’re looking at is to provide financial assistance to park owners to upgrade their infrastructure.

Parks owners usually close down for two reasons: the land value is high, and can be sold for more than they’re making managing a mobile home park, or because the park is old and the infrastructure is failing. There are maintenance issues with water and sewer lines, or the roads need to be re-paved. Sometimes infrastructure maintenance costs quite a lot, and you can’t raise rents enough to pay off the debt because market forces will allow residents to move to other locations.

We already have established programs in the city that allocate funds for maintenance purposes.

One of the other techniques for stabilization or preservation suggested is for parks to become owned by residents or nonprofits on behalf of the residents or land trust. There are organizations throughout the county that assist residents in getting organized.

There are already several laws that deal with development projects that utilize federal dollars. Every time federal money is used in a redevelopment project, the developer has the obligation and responsibility to pay relocation cost of displaced people. We’re working on what kind of requirement that the city can put on the developer to pay existing residents for moving to another park or another type of housing.

Q: The city of Fort Collins’ website says that the transportation plan and the city plan are unified around the ideas of innovation, sustainability and connections. Can you explain how these things play out in the city’s plan?

A: Sustainability is not an add-on to the comprehensive plan. It’s a whole new way of looking at planning.

It was about recognizing that sustainability is involved in every social and economic aspect of the plan. It’s a three-legged stool that can’t stand if you take away one of the legs. So when you’re making policies or decisions, you need to think broadly when you look at what are the consequences and what are the impacts.

Sustainability was a direction we were already headed in, and FortZED became a good example of that.

Planning is a process, not a project. You can go back and see elements of the philosophy in the things we’ve done in the past 30 years, and now they’re solidified in the latest reiteration of the plan. But in five years, it will be looked at again and evolve into the next phase. Every time we do an update, probably 85 percent of the plan doesn’t change, but there are always new things that we incorporate into our plan and then move on from there.

– Maggie Shafer

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