Desperate for housing options, communities turn to voting initiatives

LEADVILLE, Colorado – A small business owner in a city fueled by vacationers is an unconventional proponent of increasing taxes on tourists. But Marcee Lundeen sees few other choices.

Preparing for ski season at her restaurant along Main Street in this legendary mining town perched 10,000 feet between clusters of resorts, she’ll be hard pressed to find workers, she said, as few of them can afford to live in Leadville.

“I don’t look at it politically, I look at it economically,” said Ms. Lundeen, co-owner of Golden Burro. A sign in the window promotes a voting measure on Tuesday that would impose a 3% tax on visitors staying in hotels, motels and short-term rentals, intended to create more affordable housing. “I have several potential employees who cannot work for us because there is no place to live. It was a motivator, ”she said.

The Leadville initiative is one of nearly a dozen measures that will be on the ballot in Colorado to address the growing housing shortage in the state, one that predates but now reflects hundreds of communities in across the country. Many other counties and cities, especially in the West, are considering similar initiatives in Tuesday’s poll as housing stock remains scarce and prices remain high.

Years of stalled construction, labor and supply issues, and the rise in short-term rentals like Airbnb have all contributed to the housing shortage, which has frustrated first-time buyers, forced tenants and contributed to homelessness.

Migration patterns during the coronavirus pandemic have compounded the problem in some places as people move from more expensive cities to new areas, raising prices as they descend in search of the nearest Trader Joe’s. The median price of existing homes was $ 352,800 in September, up 13.3% from the same period last year, and the 115th consecutive month of year-over-year increase, according to the National Association of Realtors.

As the Biden administration seeks billions of dollars in rent and housing assistance in its giant economic policy bill, the federal government has largely stayed on the sidelines for years, leaving the states, localities and sometimes citizens intervene.

“I don’t promote taxes on anyone,” said Jerry Howard, executive director of the National Association of Home Builders. “But in the absence of the federal government’s ability to pull itself together, state and local governments are going to have to shoulder more of the burden.”

Voters in three Colorado cities will decide this week whether or not to approve excise taxes or lodging taxes on short-term rentals that would go to new housing, while resort towns Vail and Crested Butte top of the line, will vote on a sales tax that would also go to new housing initiatives.

In Lincoln County, Oregon, the only item on the ballot this week would demand the phasing out of short-term rental housing in unincorporated residential areas and place further restrictions on those properties. Other cities are considering similar measures to curb Airbnb-style rentals, which they say have excluded residents from long-term accommodations.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, residents will vote on a rent control measure, an issue that has also become central to Boston’s mayoral race. “The Twin Cities are one of the few remaining affordable metropolitan areas,” said Tram Hoang, head of efforts in Minnesota. “We have felt the crisis as the prices of renting and buying homes go up. According to the proposal, St. Paul would cap annual rent increases at 3%.

Other voters across the country, like those in Albuquerque, will weigh in on new bonds that would fund the construction and rehabilitation of low- and moderate-income housing.

Some initiatives are proposed by governments controlled by Democrats, but at least as many have been prompted by citizens tired of the housing shortage. To deal with the increase in homeless settlements in large metropolitan areas, some Republicans have created initiatives to curb them. For example, a measure introduced by the president of the Republican Party of Denver would tighten bans on camping there to limit the number of homeless people who set up campsites in the city.

Progressive groups say many of the housing measures are a test for worker-friendly initiatives in 2022 that will focus on housing, wages and other work issues.

Political groups from all walks of life are closely monitoring the progress of these initiatives, “so that we can plan statewide voting measures in 2022,” said Corrine Rivera Fowler, director of policy and advocacy. legal for the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which consults on initiatives. “Economic justice in general has somewhat strengthened during the pandemic and has brought to light the issues people face in enabling themselves to live in dignity. “

Many initiatives have indeed been sparked by residents weary of housing hunting. The housing shortage in Leadville, Colo. “Is pressing down on all the little people who run this town and this county,” said Jenny David, 43, a seamstress who has joined the Lake County Housing Coalition, which is leading the initiative. aimed at increasing taxes on tourists. Ms. David went from an apartment building to a modular home as rents rose. She now fears that the duplex that she landed thanks to word of mouth will be sold in this overheated market. “I feel like I have a real world experience to bring,” she said.

Like many places near vacation spots, Lake County, where Leadville is located, has seen its real estate market value more than double in the past five years. But there has been little investment in housing for low-income workers in the area, officials said.

Supporters of the measure in Lincoln County, Oregon, also blame short-term rentals for the shortage of available housing. In some areas of the county, housing was so scarce last summer that a hospital in the area asked residents to rent houses to nurses and other medical staff. As is the case in many towns and resorts, large homes were built or purchased in the county and then turned into short term rentals for vacationers at a much faster rate than modest homes became available for use. full-time residents with an income.

Homes that were bought to essentially turn into short-term rental properties have converted neighborhoods to “short-term rental resorts,” where 5 to 45 percent of housing is now short-term, said Monica Kirk, a leader of 15 neighborhoods, who was trained during the pandemic by a group of local residents and sponsored the initiative to phase out short-term rentals in some areas. “We felt that we needed to preserve our neighborhoods and restore our depleted long-term housing stock. “

Even outside the elections, some initiatives have sparked costly battles.

“I’ve been elected here for 34 years and I’ve never seen an expense like this,” said Claire Elizabeth Hall, Lincoln County Commissioner. She cited a donation of $ 200,000 from an operator of short-term rental properties. “I have never spent more than $ 8,500 on any of my campaigns,” she said.

Ms Hall, a Democrat, said she opposed the initiative because it “goes too far” and would most likely have an impact on upscale homes, instead of helping those looking for cheaper housing . She prefers more regulation and enforcement, and caps the number of short-term rental licenses issued. Some opponents of the measure argue that the proposed phase-out would amount to county control of private property. Opponents outnumbered about 25 to a grassroots organization 15 neighborhoods.

Critics believe that tax levies and even increases in state and federal budgets for housing do not solve the other structural problems that have plagued the housing market. These issues include the availability of building land, the current labor shortage, and zoning restrictions that restrict construction outside of single-family homes in many places.

“No matter how much money policymakers spend on subsidizing housing, the fundamental problem of not having enough housing for the number of people who live in an area, or would like to live in an area cannot be solved without allowing ‘build more,’ said Emily Hamilton, director of the Urbanity project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Also in Leadville, supporters of the new tax believe residents are ready to give it a try. “Most of the other towns around us did it, ”said Kristi Galarza, the“ facilitator ”of the Lake County Housing Coalition. “Once we explain to citizens how the funds will be used, we hear people say, ‘Why not? “”

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