Opinion | Susan Knopf: Thinking out of the box

As I walked into the room, more chairs were rolled in, to accommodate more than 100 people gathered to discuss housing options and opportunities in Summit County.

Commissioner Tamara Pogue moderated the far-ranging conversation with six panelists from the governor’s office, state and local government, as well as a private sector developer.

One participant, who asked not to be quoted, said it was a “charm offensive.” Apparently to qualify for grants, local government has to demonstrate they are engaged with the public.

I thought most of the engagement was a bit of chest pounding. My husband Jonathan, a veteran newsman, said he thought it was a very earnest attempt to solve a very old problem — creating affordable housing in an expensive marketplace. 

A surprising element actually helped shift the tone. A World War II veteran was the first to ask a question. It was more of a biography than a question, as he regaled us with tales of his daring exploits: jumping out of a spiraling airplane with a parachute that nearly failed to deploy. When compelled to cut his narrative short he exhorted the public officials to “think out of the box.”

Interestingly, by the end of the meeting lots of people on the stage and in the audience were repeating this phrase, “Think out of the box.” 

Panelists agreed, thanks to changes in code, and public programs, there are more opportunities to publicly assist the creation of affordable housing than ever before. Those opportunities are geared to people ranging from 60% to 140% of area median income.

Jerilynn Francis, the chief communications and community partnerships officer of the newly created Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, told the audience, 60% of AMI is a $43,000 gross annual income for a one-person household in Summit County.

I know a lot of people in this town who wish they made $43,000 a year. They are the gears that make the county’s economic machinery work. They are the lift operators, servers, retail workers, maintenance and housekeeping staff. They need housing too.

Jason Dietz, Summit County housing director said 1,700 units are in the pipeline with a wide range of AMI types.

Andrew Paredes, the director of housing finance and sustainability in the Division of Housing in the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, said he is new to the government landscape. He spent more than 30 years specializing in mortgages and construction loans. He said he is excited about the new changes coming, a “wider spectrum of projects can seek funding.”

Doug Bair, with Unsheltered in Summit, part of the Summit Colorado Interfaith Council, talked about the new proposed transitional housing project in Frisco. Should the project go forward, it would be a new charitable organization dedicated to supporting Summit County workforce. Bair asked what new funds might be available for purchase and renovation of the old Frisco library site off Main Street.

The panelists said a new revolving loan program is just rolling out, authorized by SB22-159. This innovative program can loan funds for affordable housing initiatives ranging from people emerging from homelessness to those looking to step into home ownership.

One metaphor was repeated often: there is no one silver bullet. It’s more like silver buckshot.

Tom Castrigno, who also serves on the Unsheltered in Summit committee, a group that provides safe overnight parking for working locals, said he objects to the “spend, spend, build, build” concept. He favors more emphasis on the utilization of existing housing stock.

He had an amazing idea that needs to be targeted to our senators. He suggested if sellers are willing to sell their properties at less inflated prices, and take smaller gains, they could receive tax credit for their sacrifices. That’s what I call thinking out of the box.

I particularly enjoyed the congenial, energetic, collegial and cooperative tone of the panelists. Attendees came away with the idea that they are working together to think out of the box.

When asked what they expected 10 years from now, all were convinced that new emerging programs would go a long way to remedy today’s affordable housing woes. Garrett Scharton, vice president of Servitas, a private sector development company, exhorted the community to become “a political force of nature” that will influence what happens next. Political engagement empowers the community to protect and safeguard the housing supply going forward.

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