Carbondale board, county commissioners open dialogue on housing wants

Housing — how to meet the growing demand for it, make it affordable and preserve what reasonably priced housing already exists — became the theme dujour during a wide-ranging work session meeting of the Carbondale Board of Trustees on Tuesday.

As is the case with such working meetings, no decisions were made, but many ideas were exchanged. 

The night’s agenda opened with a joint meeting inviting the Garfield County commissioners to share their thoughts, before delving into discussions about the Town Center property that recently came into the town’s hands. 

The evening ended with preliminary discussion about a potential ballot question later this year or next seeking an increase in Carbondale’s lodging tax, in part to help fund affordable housing efforts as now allowed under state law.

“I’m an economic development guy, and housing is economic development,” Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said when the topic of housing came up in his and fellow Commissioner John Martin’s discussion with the town trustees.

“If we don’t have places for people to live, the economy becomes stagnant,” he said, relating the struggles for both employers and their employees.

Also discussed was the recently formed Roaring Fork Regional Housing Coalition that is seeking funding to begin addressing housing needs on a regional basis from Aspen to Parachute.

While Carbondale agreed to officially join the coalition, including providing $10,000 in seed money, Garfield County commissioners, on a 2-1 vote earlier this spring, opted out — for now. Jankovsky was in favor of joining.

Commissioners on Monday did agree to sign a letter of support for the Housing Coalition’s request for a $75,000 Colorado Department of Local Affairs Innovative Affordable Housing Strategy Program grant. The coalition, using the seed money provided by participating local governments, would match $25,000, according to the grant proposal.

“I am intrigued by the amount of funds out there in the state of Colorado, and how we can get those into Garfield County,” Jankovsky said during the Tuesday meeting with Carbondale.

Carbondale Mayor Ben Bohmfalk said the town is a “small player” in that regional effort. At the same time, Carbondale over the past decade has been intentional in doing its part to address local housing needs, he said.

An example is the roughly 200 new residential units built or under construction along the Colorado Highway 133 corridor near the Main Street roundabout.

“We’ve taken some heat for that, but it is the culmination of 10 years of some very intentional planning on the town’s part, and it’s gratifying to see that coming to fruition,” Bohmfalk said.

Still, aside from the 20% of those units that are deed-restricted in an effort to maintain affordability, the free-market rents for those units, at about $2,500/month, are well outside what’s considered “attainable,” he admitted. 

All told, Carbondale has about 355 deed-restricted units in its housing inventory — including the Roaring Fork School District’s staff housing units — and another 28 pending, Town Manager Lauren Gister said.

Commissioner Martin urged the town trustees to consider senior residents when addressing housing needs.

“We need to take care of the people who have been here the longest, and who now can’t afford to stay here and are losing their homes,” Martin said.

One area where the town and county could collaborate is in working to preserve mobile home parks that exist both inside and outside town limits, Bohmfalk suggested.

He pointed to new state laws that empower mobile home owners to be able to band together to purchase the separately owned parks where they now have to lease space.

Town Center talks

When it comes to future development of the 1.4-acre Town Center property surrounding the Thunder River Theatre that was donated to the town at the end of 2021, “housing predictably is rising to the top of the list” as far as what to put there, Bohmfalk said.

Following the brief discussion with the county commissioners, the trustees turned their attention to additional public input and “next steps” on how to proceed with planning for the site.

The town is likely to seek out a public-private partnership of some sort to develop the lots, through either a formal Request for Proposals (RFP) or the less-involved Request for Qualifications (RFQ).

Land-use consultant Bob Schultz said an RFQ could be the better route, because it allows for a more directed exchange of ideas before committing to a specific proposal. 

A recent on-site public input session held as part of the June 3 First Friday event generated a lot of ideas for use of the property, but housing definitely was at the top of most people’s minds, Bohmfalk said.

That’s likely to be the focal point of any development proposals, along with some limited commercial/retail space or possibly live-work units. The town is also inclined to work within the existing zoning for the property, which is mixed-use.

A potential development partner, among others, could be Habitat for Humanity of the Roaring Fork Valley. Habitat President Gail Schwartz and future projects lead Jon Fox-Rubin were on hand to discuss that possibility.

Habitat is becoming more flexible in the types of projects it pursues in an effort to meet local needs, Schwartz said. That includes exploring rental housing projects, as opposed to for-sale housing, and even the possibility of live-work types of spaces, she said.

Schultz noted that if the town lines up multiple development partners, it should be careful that they aren’t competing for the same potential funding sources, such as low-income tax credits. That could work against the project, he said.

Lodging tax options

Another potential funding source for housing is the state of Colorado’s new provisions for use of local lodging taxes.

Trustees on Tuesday heard a presentation from members of the Carbondale Tourism Council regarding the town’s existing 2% lodging tax, which goes to fund tourism promotions.

There are some possibilities for increasing that tax assessment for other purposes such as housing. In addition to putting some lodging tax funds toward local workforce housing, tourism officials said they also want to do more to make sure tourism “carries its weight” in terms of a variety of impacts to the town, said Tourism Council members Andrea Stewart and Sarah-Jane Johnson. 

Recently, other municipalities in the region have asked and received voter support to dedicate some lodging tax funds for housing needs. Carbondale may look to do the same.

Additionally, the town could also seek a separate excise tax on short-term vacation rentals. The town now requires a license to convert residential living space into a vacation rental. An excise tax would be in addition to the lodging tax.

Trustees are set to further discuss the proposal at their July 12 meeting, including a staff recommendation on what type of tax or taxes to ask for. 

The board could decide to pursue a ballot question this November or to wait a year.

Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or [email protected].