Flagstaff workers struggle to find a way home

Businesses, organizations, city, school district working toward collaborative solutions.

Clover Jacobs could hardly believe the news when she and her young family had been accepted for a Habitat for Humanity home. She didn’t think she was eligible but then she heard the home would be “a hand up, not a hand out,” and that Habitat helps people get to the next stage in life. Clover shared her story at the Coconino Center for the Arts during the “Arizona Storytellers Presents: Finding Home” event on Oct. 26, a public forum addressing affordable housing challenges in Flagstaff.

Clover, with her husband and friends worked alongside volunteers to build the Flagstaff home. Before the dry wall went up, the group wrote blessings on the wood studs. The home was small but it was their home – a safe place for their young son and a meaningful start for a young family that could then manage an affordable mortgage, pay the bills and even save a little for a down payment on a larger home.

Crisis Becoming an Emergency

Arizona communities are facing what’s being called a housing crisis. For Flagstaff, the challenge to find affordable housing has been with the community for decades. In recent years, with the steaming hot real estate market, the challenge has boiled over creating a housing emergency impacting the ability of workers to live here, small businesses to keep their doors open and the Flagstaff Unified School District to keep buses rolling.

The number of houses available for sale has grown recently, to about a three month supply, but escalating home prices in recent years have hiked the average single family home to nearly three quarters of a million dollars.

As a Flagstaff native who grew up with loving parents making income at or just above the poverty line, the housing crisis and affordability issue hits home,” said realtor Lori Anna Harrison with Zion Realty. “My grandfather, John D. Sutherland, built and developed Hidden Hollow Mobile Home Park. Back then he provided affordable housing options for the resident workforce. As a local real estate agent, it is heartbreaking to work with clients who are prequalified to purchase but have no place to buy because these options at an entry level price point are out of reach, even in a dual income family.”

Ashlee Tziganuk, Ph.D., is a research analyst with the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University examining the issue of affordable housing. “Out of the six counties in the state we studied, Coconino County and Flagstaff have the highest percentages of cost-burdened renters,” she said during her Finding Home presentation, explaining that cost-burdened means paying more than 30% of a household income for mortgage or rent.

Housing Solutions CEO Devonna McLaughlin sees families struggling every day, living paycheck to paycheck and on the brink of homelessness. “When housing costs are 40% to 50% or more of a household’s income, any disruption to the balance can be catastrophic. If a family has a disruption to income – due to illness, accident, death in the family, etc. – or unexpected expenses such as the car breaking down, a medical bill or something else outside their control, they struggle to make limited resources stretch even further. Many families who are paying too much for housing are one life event away from becoming homeless.”

Meanwhile, small businesses that have been creatively navigating the business landscape through the pandemic now feel the weight of yet another layer of adversity as hiring and retaining workers from an already shrinking workforce has become even more difficult, threatening their ability to stay open. “I’ve been trying to hire a manager for one of the restaurants for a salary of $70,000 a year. People can’t afford a place to live,” said restaurateur and chef John Conley, owner of Salsa Brava and Fat Olives who employs about 160 people.

The Flagstaff Unified School District, the fourth largest employer in the city, is also feeling the strain. Where experienced teachers once willingly served as substitutes until coveted permanent fulltime positions opened, the last five years have seen fewer applicants per position. “Each year, we have a few teachers accept a contract for a teaching position, but after having difficulty finding affordable housing, request to be released from the position. FUSD currently has a need for bus drivers, special education paraprofessionals, substitutes, custodians, food service and crossing guards. Currently, other staff must cover these essential services.”

Solutions for Finding Home

In a panel discussion during the Finding Home evening with McLaughlin, Conley and Devonna, the group agreed that the solution will require a collaborative effort. Conley said large employers in the community may need to build housing for their workers. He has been exploring the idea for his restaurants.

“For FUSD, this could mean we organize a public-private partnership to utilize current land assets for employee housing,” said Penca. “We are looking for creative ways for our employees to live in affordable, safe and quality housing, and to have the opportunity to build equity so they can realize the dream of home ownership.”

“If we are going to get actual affordable/attainable housing in Flagstaff, we have to invest in it.” said McLaughlin. “We won’t build our way out of the crisis. Neither the private sector nor the federal government will solve the crisis in our community. If we believe housing is a crisis, we need to invest local dollars into local solutions,” she said, encouraging Flagstaff voters to approve Proposition 442, which would fund infrastructure improvement projects turning city-owned properties into affordable housing.

Flagstaff Considered a Leader

Despite the challenges, other Arizona cities, researchers and the Arizona Association for Economic Development consider Flagstaff to be leading the way and taking on the affordable housing crisis.

“The City of Flagstaff has been one of the most proactive cities in the state when it comes to addressing the affordable housing crisis, says Tziganuk. “For example, Flagstaff City Council declared a housing emergency in 2020 and the city developed a 10-year housing plan that includes policy initiatives and strategies to address housing issues.”

In the meantime, Habitat for Humanity has been hammering away at the problem for years, one home at a time, one family at a time.

For Clover, when it was time to leave her Habitat home, the joy of handing over the keys to another Habitat family, a single mom with two children, outweighed the tearful nostalgia she felt when moving on from the small home with blessings on the beams .

Photo caption:

Restaurateur John Conley, FUSD Superintendent Mike Penca and Housing Solutions of Northern Arizona CEO Devonna McLaughlin discussed Flagstaff affordable housing challenges in a discussion moderated by FBN Editor Bonnie Stevens.

Photo by Chad de Alva

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