When The Work Force Can't Live Here ...

Week 4: Why does it matter if there is no affordable housing?

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They call it a living wage -- the amount of money a person needs to make in order to afford a home, eat and cover other basic needs.

In order for a person to afford a home costing $163,000, a living wage would be $22.69 per hour.

But in Payson, there is little industry and few jobs that provide such a wage.

"Most workers have low pay, few benefits and no way to improve their pay," said Bruce Hopkins, vice president of the Payson Area Habitat for Humanity.

Hopkins said the report showed that even the highest paid members of Payson's work force -- police officers and nurses, both making a little more than $17 per hour -- cannot qualify to buy a home at current prices on their salary alone.

In Payson, teachers and firefighters are making an average of $15.60 and $11.49 per hour, respectively, he said. Those in the retail industry average $7.23 per hour and restaurant workers make an average of $6.38 per hour.

"These are the people needed in a community to support its economy," Hopkins said. But housing prices will eventually drive them elsewhere, to more affordable towns with better economies.

Already, the Payson Roundup's help wanted section is a signpost of things to come. The May 12 issue of the Roundup had 98 listings in the Help Wanted section. There is not a lack of jobs, but a lack of people to take those jobs.

Jake Guzman recently faced Payson's dwindling work force. As the manager of a new restaurant, the Main Street Grille, he struggled to find staff.

He placed an ad and waited. The wait became a nervous one as he went weeks without people applying for the open positions.

Going to school

As the bottom half of Payson's economic class structure drains out of town, in search of affordable living, they take their children with them. Classrooms empty as school enrollment drops.

High housing costs have the potential of being a double-edged sword for school districts. As the value of homes in a school district increase, the tax revenue generated also goes up, which is a benefit to a school. But if families with children cannot afford to live in that district, the school could face a drop in enrollment and consequently a reduction in the funds it receives from the state for its average daily membership.

Sue Myers, superintendent of the Payson Unified School District and former superintendent of the Pine Strawberry School District, said there is no reliable means for tracking the impact of housing costs on student enrollment.

People addressing the problem

The problem of the lack of affordable housing is not new in Payson.

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Payson Police Department dispatcher Shawn DeWitt offers a vital service to Payson as the connection between citizens and law enforcement. Dispatchers make about $13 per hour in Payson. In order to purchase an "affordable home," Payson residents need to make at least $22.69.

The PAHH has been working since 1995 to make a difference for low to moderate income residents of the area and will soon be constructing its 13th home.

"PAHH believes that decent, affordable, healthy housing is a basic human need. ... Our mission is to eliminate poverty housing in the Payson area," states PAHH literature, prepared by one of the group's founding members.

The group has addressed the problem one house at a time, and has plans to continue to do so, but also is expanding its efforts. An entire PAHH subdivision is in the works.

And there are others working on the problem.

Jerry Owen, the town's new community development director, has several ideas.

"This isn't only a problem in Payson," Owen said of the lack of affordable housing. "I don't know if we can fix the problem, but we need to be pushing all the buttons out there and try to make a difference for at least some people.

"We need to tap more resources."

Among the other resources available are a State Special Projects fund and the state's home funding program. Owen said some of these other funds could be used to help PAHH with the infrastructure of its planned subdivision.

Another option is a community land trust, he said. The town would own the land and help homeowners secure financing to build a home. The homeowners would earn the equity in the house, but the land -- and its equity -- would be retained by the town.

"Flagstaff has been working with something like this for a number of years," Owen said. However, as value of raw land increases, the return is not enough for the municipality to repeat the process for others.

"We could try to come up with a countywide housing trust fund," he said.

Changing zoning codes is another way to address the problem, he said.

As the town's code was written, if a duplex structure was built on two narrow lots to be a rental, then the setback requirements were suspended. However, if the same duplex was built with the intention of selling each unit, the setbacks were required, and consequently the variance process had to be followed.

"It was an unintended consequence," Owen said. "Now attached housing units are OK."

This change makes it possible to make use of smaller lots and helps with "in fill" development in the older part of town where the smaller lots exist.

"We as a community need to show we're really trying (to address the problem) and work in the same direction," Owen said.

To that end, Bethany Beck, who has worked as Payson's grants coordinator, will now serve as the new housing program manager.

And one developer, Kevin Sokol, is taking up the cause, Owen said. Sokol donated a portion of his Boulder Ridge development to build affordable work force housing and a park.

Coming up

Week 5: Solutions

Week 6: Community round table, 5:30 p.m. May 30 at Payson Public Library. RSVP to (928) 474-5251, ext. 115.

See related stories:

Week 1: Work force being priced out of Payson (April 28)

Week 2: Affordable housing: How did it get this bad? (May 5)

Week 3: Seniors struggle to find affordable housing (May 12)

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