A reluctant Payson Planning Commission on Monday approved a plan to covert 60 of the town's handful of apartments into condominiums.
Owner John Alston wanted to clear the way legally to convert some or all of the Frontier Apartments on three acres at 801 E. Frontier Street into $145,000 condos in the course of the next five years or so -- depending on the market.
Although many residents had bitterly protested the conversion and their possible eviction as their leases expire, the planning commission learned that it had little choice but to approve the requested preliminary plat.
Community Development Director Jerry Owen said state law prevents cities from imposing any restrictions on condominiums they don't impose on apartments, which means the cities can't control ownership arrangements.
"We've been telling anyone who would listen for two years that we need apartments," said Owen. "At the same time, we have to recognize our limits. The state statute adopted two years ago says we can't treat condominiums any differently than we do apartments."
Alston faced questioning from planning commissioners worried about the impact of the change in a town where the few apartment complexes often have long waiting lists for renters trying to find a place to live in Payson.
Commissioner Russell Goddard questioned Alston as to why he would even want to convert the apartments to condos in the face of the tight rental market, waiting lists of renters and relatively high rents in Payson.
"To provide some affordable housing people can own," said Alston, suggesting the $145,000 price for the 960-square-foot apartments would represent affordable housing in Payson.
"That's all?" insisted a skeptical Goddard.
"And I want to make some money," added Alston.
Several commissioners expressed dismay at the conversion, although they acknowledged they were helpless to block it.
Commissioner Lori Meyers said, "I understand they consider this affordable housing. But we're leaving out people who can only afford apartments. With the price of land in Payson, there's a slim chance of anyone coming in to build apartments. So now we're going to eliminate 60 apartments ... these are the people who wait on us in the restaurants" where are they going to live? she asked.
Goddard lamented, "I don't know what we can do about it. This property is already in an area that is zoned to do this. I see it as taking away from affordable housing.
But most of the discussion centered on the conditions of approval, particularly the requirement that the owner establish a homeowner's association that could deal with the problem of having a single meter for water and sewer service to the whole building.
And other commission members supported the notion that at $145,000, the condos would provide low-end housing for some residents.
"There is an up side," said Commissioner Joel Mona. "Some people renting will be priced out, but some people who want to own will be priced in."
The owner had previously spurred protests from residents when he raised the rent by $100 and required all the renters to sign leases. Those leases now represent their chief security, since even if Alston converts the units to condos the rental leases remain legally binding.
About 10 residents had attended a previously required meeting on the conversion plan and several filed written comments, which were included in the agenda packet on the conversion request.
One resident wrote, "where do they think we are all going to live or go? For us low-income people, this apartment complex is just right. My husband and I enjoy living in Payson, but with this situation we will have to leave. Boo! It's a joke. The complexes are old. There are not enough apartments in Payson as it is!"
Another complained, "we had affordable housing until you took over. We were forced to sign a lease because we were given less than a 30-day notice of a lease. Some of us do not want to buy."
A third resident observed, "I feel we are being pressured to move out of the apartments, which equates to us being moved out of Payson. There are no affordable housing units available in the township of Payson. Where will we go? What will we do? I have only been a member of this community for two and a half years, but I have made friends here. I have volunteered for work at the Payson Senior Center, the Meals on Wheels, in order to benefit the elders living here. I want to remain in Payson."
Alston told the planning commission that he's not sure whether he will actually convert the apartments to condos or over what time frame -- it all depends on the market. He noted that for the present, he's even offering renters new six and 12-month leases.
"We may sit on it for years, we may start selling it this year. I don't have a crystal ball," he said.
In the end, the commission approved the plat plan on a 4-2 vote.