The affordable housing quandary

by Jonathan Thompson

(This editor's note accompanies an HCN magazine cover story about conservation goals in Jackson, Wyoming, colliding with the need for affordable housing.)

Last summer, I moved back to my hometown of Durango, Colo., with my wife and daughters. It's been a bittersweet experience -- sweet because my family has been here for generations, and it's got great schools, a college and a river running through town. And bitter because the housing is far too expensive for the average working joe.

That means Durango is a lot like Jackson, Wyo., the subject of Ray Ring's cover story -- or, for that matter, Aspen or Boulder or dozens of other chi-chi Western towns. If you want to live here, either bring a lot of extra cash, or be prepared to commute.

Here in Durango, though, we have a pressure-release valve of sorts, called sprawl. Though the town itself is hemmed in by geography, one needn't go far to find acres of private, developable land. Much of it was once in agriculture, but a building boom from the late 1980s until the mid-2000s, encouraged by lack of land-use planning, left it spattered with a hodgepodge of ranchettes, trailers and subdivisions.

Some might see it as a mess, yet it's also relatively affordable. The same $300,000 that would get you a tiny old fixer-upper in town will buy a brand-new home in the development just over the ridge, a sweaty bike ride to downtown, true, but still within the school district and town limits. With considerably less, you can purchase a trailer 10 miles outside of town. It's hardly ideal, but Durango has stumbled into a housing situation that's far more sustainable than Jackson's 45-minute, treacherous, mountain pass drive to affordability.

If you're anything like me, as you read Ring's story, one side of you will plead with Jackson's conservationists to allow enough growth to alleviate some of the housing crunch. The current situation doesn't work, and Jackson's "bedroom communities" will eventually create their own economies with their own jobs and their own housing issues, forcing Jackson's workers to commute even farther. Eventually, the rising cost of gas will make that prospect untenable, as will the environmental toll of all those workers driving every day.

Yet the other side of you will just as heartily urge those conservationists to keep up the good fight, and not give into the housing "solution" that communities like mine have fallen back on. Because sprawl is not remotely sustainable, either.

There is a middle way. Instead of pushing the working class out into the exurbs or over the pass, why not pull them inward, into the heart of the community where they belong? It's possible with high-density development in the urban envelope, taller buildings with income-restricted housing atop commercial spaces, and maybe some clustered development on the town's fringes. Sure, Jackson might lose a bit of that prized "frontier town" feel. But as the lack of affordable housing makes clear, the frontier days are over.

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