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Council looks at affordability

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Village Council needs to decide whether it intends to make affordable housing a priority before moving ahead with a specific project, John Davis told Council members at their June 7 meeting.

“The threshold issue is, are you going to support affordable housing at all?” he said. “It’s something you need to think through. If you decide to do so, then look for the best strategy and build it into your policies.”

Davis made a presentation to Council on the second day of a two-day visit to Yellow Springs from his home in Burlington, Vt., where he is a founding partner in Burlington Associates in Community Development, a national consulting group that specializes in affordable housing. Considered a national expert on the issue, Davis spoke to about 50 villagers at a Sunday night forum and to a smaller group on Monday morning. The cost of his visit was shared by Council and Home, Inc.

The topic was discussion only, and Council did not take action at this time.

More and more municipalities are involving themselves in affordable housing, according to Davis, who identified a variety of strategies, including a municipality donating land or buildings, revising zoning codes to incentivize affordable housing, waiving fees or just being in partnerships with local community land trust organizations. The community land trust, or CLT, model, in which individuals own property on land while a nonprofit community group retains ownership of land, is currently used in 240 towns nationwide, he said.

“This mechanism has proven itself most effective in preserving affordability and in getting the biggest bang for the public dollar,” he said.

Municipalities have proactively supported CLTs for a variety of reasons, Davis said, including their desire to attract and retain a workforce, to stabilize public schools and to promote and preserve diversity.

Those factors also attract Council President Judith Hempfling to the issue, she said, stating that as local housing prices have risen far beyond local wages, the lack of affordability seems to be a factor in the decline of racial and economic diversity in Yellow Springs.

“We’re losing a lot of the richness of our community culture,” she said.

Hempfling expressed her interest in beginning a public discussion on the issue, including how the Village should best use Village-owned land for the benefit of the community.

Davis agreed that supporting affordable housing is not “a special interest privilege but a way of promoting the public good.”

Villager Pat Brown also spoke in favor of a Village commitment to affordable housing, especially since Village preservation of green space may have been a factor in causing local housing prices to rise, she said.

But there is also opposition in the community, according to longtime community member Bomani Moyenda, who asked Davis how his group has addressed the NIMBY— or “not in my back yard” — syndrome.

“Every community has NIMBY as an obstacle to affordable housing,” Davis said. “Affordable housing is a suitcase word into which everyone packs their own fears and prejudices.”

When the initial CLT project was proposed in Burlington several decades ago, organizers emphasized the specific people who would live in the affordable homes, as a way to address people’s fears of the unknown, he said, adding that after several years, the project enjoyed broad support.

“Once people saw the housing was well maintained, remains affordable and the folks who live there are great people,” the opposition diminished, he said. Still, he added, the issue is complex, and “I have no easy answer.”

Davis also addressed questions from Council member Karen Wintrow, who stated that “We do have a broad range of people living in Yellow Springs,” although finding affordable housing is “becoming increasingly difficult.”

Wintrow expressed concerns that because affordability is a bigger issue than just housing, affordable housing could make Yellow Springs available to “someone who can barely afford to live here.” She also hears concerns from those already in town “who feel they’re barely hanging on,” while Council continues to pursue policies such as green space preservation that they perceive as raising the cost of living.

“Why do we continue to make this place less affordable?” she said.

Davis also responded to Wintrow’s questions regarding building materials used in the CLT model, and whether CLT homeowners are required to move out if their income increases to the extent that they could afford a market-priced home.

“We find it enriches a community to have a diversity of income. We don’t want to create ghettos,” Davis said, stating that homeowners whose income increases are not required to leave. “We don’t want to penalize them for doing better.”

However, according to Marianne MacQueen, executive director of the local CLT Home, Inc., there are financial incentives that lead many CLT homeowners to move on when their incomes rise. To preserve affordability, CLT homeowners receive only a portion of the appreciation value when they sell their home, and if they own a home outright, they will make more money.

Regarding building materials, Davis said that because CLT groups hold longterm leases on the land, they have an interest in building durable buildings, and consequently they use durable and energy efficient materials.

“We’re the developer that won’t build, sell and leave,” he said. “We’re the developer that doesn’t go away.”

The groups also stand behind their homeowners in difficult times, and have a very low rate of foreclosure, Davis said.

Research has shown that if the CLT homes are well designed, well maintained and fit in with the neighborhood, property values around CLTs do not go down, according to Davis.

In addition to building new housing, about half of all affordable housing in the country is created from existing housing, Davis said, in response to a question from Brown, who asked about the possibilities of elders donating their homes to a CLT, or having that group assume a mortgage. Such arrangements are common, Davis said, and CLTs often allow the person to live in the home as long as they are able, even after assuming ownership.

For additional items of Council June 7 business, see next week’s News.

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