Desperate for Housing Options, Communities Turn to Ballot Initiatives

LEADVILLE, Colorado – A small business owner in a vacationer-driven town is an unconventional proponent of a tourist tax increase. But Marcee Lundeen sees few other options.

Preparing for ski season at his restaurant along the main street in this legendary mining town perched 10,000 feet between clusters of resorts, he will have trouble finding workers, he said, because few of them can afford to live in Leadville.

“I don’t see this politically, I see it economically,” said Ms. Lundeen, co-owner of the Golden Burro. A sign in the window promotes a ballot measure Tuesday that would charge visitors staying in hotels, motels and short-term rentals a 3 percent tax, aimed at creating more affordable housing. “I have several potential employees who cannot work for us because there is no place to live. That was a motivating factor, ”he said.

Leadville’s 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 across the country. Numerous other counties and cities, especially in the west, are considering similar initiatives in Tuesday’s vote as the housing stock remains tight and prices remain high.

Years of stagnant construction, labor and supply issues, and rising short-term rentals like Airbnb have contributed a housing shortage, which has frustrated first-time buyers, squeezed renters, and contributed to Homelessness.

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

While the Biden administration is seeking billions of dollars for rental and housing assistance in its gigantic economic policy bill, the federal government has stayed out of the trouble for years, letting states, localities, and, sometimes citizens step forward.

“I’m not taxing anyone,” said Jerry Howard, executive director of the National Association of Home Builders. “But in the absence of the federal government’s ability to act together, state and local governments will have to shoulder a greater burden.”

Voters in three Colorado cities will decide this week whether to pass special or lodging taxes on short-term rentals that would go toward new homes, while Vail and Crested Butte, high-end resort towns, vote on a sales tax that would also go to new housing initiatives.

In Lincoln County, Oregon, the only item on this week’s ballot would require phasing out short-term rental housing in unincorporated residential areas and placing other restrictions on those properties. Other cities are contemplating similar measures to curb Airbnb-style rentals, which they believe have starting price residents of long-term housing.

For its part, Airbnb questioned that finding. “As several experts have concluded, shared housing has little impact on housing affordability and is not a factor in housing supply,” said Sam Randall, an Airbnb spokesman.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, residents will vote for rent control measure, an issue that has become central to the Mayor’s race in Boston as well as. “Twin Cities is one of the few remaining affordable metropolitan areas,” said Tram Hoang, manager of the Keep St. Paul Home campaign in Minnesota. “We have felt the crisis as the prices of rent and purchase of houses increase.” Under the proposal, St. Paul would limit annual rent increases to 3 percent.

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

Some initiatives are being offered by Democratic-controlled governments, but at least as many have been pushed by citizens fed up with the housing shortage. To address the rise in homeless camps in major metropolitan areas, some Republicans have created initiatives to curb them. For example, a measure introduced by the chairman of the Denver Republican Party would toughen camping bans there to limit the number of homeless people setting up camps in the city.

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

Political groups across the spectrum are closely watching how these initiatives fare, “so that we can plan statewide ballots in 2022,” said Corrine Rivera Fowler, director of policy and legal advocacy for the Initiative’s Strategy Center. Ballot, who consults on initiatives. “Economic justice in general has been lifted during the pandemic and has highlighted the problems that people are facing in order to live with dignity.”

In fact, many initiatives were driven by residents tired of finding housing. The housing shortage in Leadville, Colorado, “squeezes all the little people who support this city and county,” said Jenny David, 43, a seamstress who joined the Lake County Housing Coalition, which leads the initiative to increase taxes on tourists. . Ms. David has moved from an apartment building to a modular home as rents have risen. Now he fears that the duplex he got through word of mouth could be sold in this overheated market. “I feel like I have some real-world experience to bring to bear,” he said.

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

Proponents 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 an area hospital order residents to rent houses to nurses and other medical personnel. As is the case in many resort towns and cities, large houses have been built or purchased in the county, and then converted to short-term rentals for vacationers at a much faster rate than the modest houses available to full-time residents. with lower income. income.

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

Even in a year out of the election, some of the initiatives have sparked costly battles.

“I have been an elected official here for 34 years and have never seen expenses like this,” said Claire Elizabeth Hall, a commissioner in Lincoln County. She cited a $ 200,000 donation from a short-term rental property operator. “I have never spent more than $ 8,500 on any of my campaigns,” he said.

Ms Hall, a Democrat, said she opposed the initiative because it “goes too far” and would likely affect luxury homes, rather than help those looking for cheaper housing. She prefers more regulation and compliance, and limits on the number of short-term rental licenses issued. Some opponents of the measure argue that the proposed removal would amount to control of private property by the county. Opponents have outnumbered the grassroots organization in the neighborhoods by roughly 25 to one.

Critics say taxes and even federal and state housing budget increases fail to address other structural problems that have affected the housing market. Those issues include the availability of building land, the current labor shortage, and zoning restrictions that restrict construction in addition to single-family homes in many locations.

“No matter how much money legislators spend to subsidize housing, the fundamental problem of not having enough houses for the number of people who live in a region, or would like to live in a region, cannot be addressed without allowing more to be built. ”Said Emily Hamilton, director of the Urbanity Project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Even in Leadville, advocates of the new tax think residents are willing to give it a try. “Most of the other cities around us we’ve done this, ”said Kristi Galarza, the“ facilitator ”for the Lake County Housing Coalition. “Once we explain to citizens how the funds will be used, we hear roundly, ‘Why not?'”

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