Council’S Courage Key To Housing

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Poor Tantalus, punished for revealing the secrets of the Greek gods with eternal hunger and thirst. He stood parched in a room waist deep in water, which receded whenever he stooped to take a drink. He starved, never dying, beneath a great tree groaning with fruit, whose branches rose whenever he reached for them.

Reminds us of the plight of teachers, cops, journalists, shop owners, firefighters — all those working stiffs who can’t quite afford a house in Payson.

Certainly, the steep decline in both home prices and interest rates in the past year has done a lot to change the mathematics of the housing market.

But just when the tempting fruit on the branch dips low, the recession intervenes for people facing layoffs, pay cuts and business declines. This might be the perfect time to buy a house — but few are selling their house and trading up or bring themselves to spend their precious cash cushion on a down payment.

So what to do?

The Payson Town Council weighed in by essentially gutting the small, frail effort the town had been making to help workers find housing in Payson.

Specifically, in the boom times the then-council decided to ask developers for a “voluntary” contribution to an affordable housing fund as part of the permit approval.

Suspecting they’d have an easier time getting a permit, developers played nice — and pledged about $550,000 to the fund. That included about $9,000 in cash and $150,000 in water credits — the $7,500-per-unit fee the town imposes on new houses to pay for the Blue Ridge pipeline. The rest remains just a promise — many from developments that have since gone belly up.

Unfortunately, that patchwork solution to a critical community need was probably illegal. Property owners who comply with zoning and building codes have a right to make improvements. The council cannot impose extra, “voluntary” requirements.

So, alas, the council did the right thing in severing the informal link between making a contribution and getting a permit.

The town will miss the money, which could have been used to buy land, attract grants, help homeowners renovate, support Habitat for Humanity, pay down impact fees and other creative solutions.

Of course, that approach was just a Band-Aid on a bullet hole — like tossing poor Tantalus a Twinkie.

Providing any real relief for working families in Payson will require pure political courage. Affordable housing requires high-density zoning — and an active effort on the part of the town to recruit developers who can build $150,000 homes, condos and apartments the average guy on the street can afford.

Unfortunately, the neighbors will always object and the council will always come under pressure. That’s why the future economic health and balance of the community depends finally on the political courage of the council.

Otherwise, the working people who make this a rich, diverse, viable community will always stoop to drink, but wind up thirsty.

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