An end to this column, but not for the need for affordable housing
COMMENTARY: Affordable Housing in Lyons
Published in the June 17, 2020, edition of the Redstone Review.
By Amy Reinholds
LYONS – After a March 2015 special mail ballot election, I contacted Susan McCann with an idea that the local newspapers in Lyons needed coverage about affordable housing. I never expected my work to last for more than five years, only stopping because my husband and I moved out of state for a job change.
Susan and I talked about how the public needed factual information about definitions of affordable housing and what options were possible with local and federal funds, as well as non-profits and the private sector. I was deeply disappointed about the flow of misinformation on Facebook groups leading up to the special election for a proposal to build a range of 50-70 Boulder County Housing Authority rentals and Habitat for Humanity for-sale homes in 5-7 acres of Bohn Park. The final vote was 614 against the proposal and 498 for the proposal. Because of my passionate advocacy for affordable housing, I wanted to write a commentary, an opinion column, to give my personal perspective in addition to the facts. We arrived at a column titled “What’s the Fix for Affordable Housing in Lyons?” because I liked the acronym WTF. I had volunteered on one of the Recovery Working Groups after the devastating 2013 flood in Lyons, barely keeping my head above water in the deluge of acronyms for federal funding and government agencies. Even the name of that group I served on was called HRTF for the Housing Recovery Task Force.
I also had the snarky idea to wrangle some armchair quarterbacks off their sofas in front of laptops or phones where they proposed “better ideas” on local Facebook groups and invite them to find a way for Lyons to add some affordable housing. They volunteered to serve on a Lyons Special Housing Committee, which lasted for a few months, but planted the seeds for a land sale from Craig Ferguson and his LLC partners to Habitat for Humanity of the St. Vrain Valley at the end of 2016. I pledged to write a WTF affordable housing column in every edition of the monthly Redstone Review (and in the weekly Lyons Recorder) until new affordable housing was created in Lyons.
During the three-year anniversary of the flood in 2016, I collected some lessons learned that are surprisingly relevant today:
- Affordable housing takes a long time, and it’s not easy. But nothing happens at all if no one tries in the first place, or if no one perseveres. In the nearly four years since I wrote this observation, we have finally seen all six Habitat for Humanity homes completed on Park Street and local families purchasing those homes. We have also seen final approval of a plan for 40 affordable rentals in Lyons Valley Park for households at 60 percent of the area median income, and an announcement that the land has been purchased to build those 21 townhomes and 19 single-family homes. Eight new market-rate detached accessory dwelling units (ADUs) have been approved since the flood. Utility connection fees on these ADUs are waived for the property owners to encourage them to offer long-term rentals at the lower end of the market. Thankfully, town leaders passed ordinances that these ADUs must be used for long-term renters and not short-term vacation rentals for tourists. This will provide some help and protection for workers in local businesses who want to rent in the same town where they work. There’s still more work to be done to keep ADU rentals affordable, but this is a good start.
- We can’t rely on Facebook posts for factual information. Like accepting rumors heard on the street, believing Facebook posts as gospel truth causes misinformation and strife. In 2015-2016, Lyons community social media arguments focused on the special election to build Boulder County Housing Authority rentals and Habitat for Humanity for-sale homes in part of Bohn Park. In recent months, local Facebook groups are hosting arguments about safety, caring for others, personal freedom, the economy at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, the right to protest, rights of police in treatment of criminals or suspects, the value of human life, the value of law and order, whether all Americans are treated equally by law enforcement and the criminal justice system, and whether racism exists in American society today. To actually get things done back in 2016, we had to turn away from the lure of social media pontificating and put our energy into the actual work.
- “Lead, follow, or get out of the way!” I saw this motto on a plaque at a 2016 event honoring LaVern Johnson, who has devoted decades to serving on Town of Lyons boards and commissions. The good news in 2020 is Mrs. LaVern is still here in Lyons actively promoting causes she is passionate about – through social media and Zoom. She attends virtual meetings to keep track of what the Lyons Board of Trustees is doing and to give her historically valuable input. Just like in 2016, or in decades before, when she was raising her children and championing a new Parks and Recreation department in town, there’s a natural tendency to proclaim that something needs to get done, but it is someone else’s job. We naturally want to blame others when events don’t unfold the way we think they should. I have found that people who are passionate about initiatives should take the lead, and those who aren’t willing or able to invest the time and energy should accept the volunteers who step forward. There’s always room for others to sit at the table and debate the direction, but they have to be willing to devote the time to do so. Now, although all the meetings are virtual, there are still empty seats on boards and commissions waiting for volunteers.
We still face many other affordable housing issues, such as aging in place, and a home sharing approach for elders who have extra rooms in their homes but need help with home or yard tasks. (This might need to be reexamined in the time of physical distancing.) But our community has a lot to be encouraged about in terms of what has already been accomplished. In 2018, I walked home from a Summit Housing Group question and answer session at Lyons Middle and High School focused on an early version of the proposal for Lyons Valley Park. I wondered if in a few years I would be walking through the neighborhood and see new residents of affordable rental homes who were biking with their children or gathering for an event. As I walked on Second Avenue, completion of the Habitat for Humanity buildings seemed so far away, even though 112 Park Street was already under construction. When the final Habitat building was completed last month, I rejoiced in front of my computer, watching a video of new homeowners opening their doors.
A few months ago, I talked to a Lyons Valley Park homeowner who was concerned about safety for her kids with speeding traffic in the neighborhood. I mentioned that the new residents who would move into the neighborhood in Summit’s proposed buildings would probably include other moms with kids who ride bikes, and who also care about traffic safety in the neighborhood. It’s an opportunity for more caring neighbors who are part of the community to get involved in making the neighborhood better for everyone, just like the families who bought the Habitat for Humanity townhomes, or people who rent in town now. Lyons has a history of volunteers working to make the community a better place to live, from Mrs. LaVern to young parents of today, families of all sizes, couples, and single people of all age groups who work together. It’s a bright future for affordable housing in Lyons if this collaboration continues. I look forward to learning what happens in Lyons in the years to come.
Amy Reinholds is an affordable housing columnist for the Redstone Review. She served on the Lyons Housing Recovery Task Force from December 2013 through its end in February 2015. She served on the Lyons Human Services & Aging Commission (later renamed to the Lyons Housing & Human Services Commission) from December 2014 through May 2020. She lived in the Town of Lyons from August 2003-June 2020 and in the Boulder County area near Lyons in 1995-2003. For a history of her affordable housing columns in local newspapers, see her blog at lyonscoloradonews.wordpress.com.