By Mary Pat Haddock
Housing consumers want more choices and convenient access to amenities, according to several studies cited by a speaker in Ridgway on Jan. 23 and 24. Clark Anderson, director of the Western Colorado Legacy Program of the Sonoran Institute, gave a fascinating presentation on housing trends nationwide and in the southwest.
Ridgway Town Manager Jen Coates invited Anderson to the county after hearing him speak last year. At a dinner Wednesday night with elected and appointed officials and department heads from the county's three governmental entities, and also at a meeting for community members on Thursday, Anderson presented a comprehensive summary of housing trends. Speaking about the dinner, he said, "I got to see local governments coming together. Not many areas of the state do that. You are fortunate to have some forward thinking leaders."
The point of Anderson's presentation was that a changed housing market is emerging and local governments must respond. The number of people preferring traditional single family homes is expected to fall, renting will be more appealing and people are seeking convenience and "walkability," he said.
Increasing segmentation of the market is also expected. Anderson said different groups of people want different things, so the housing market must offer choices: single family, multifamily, attached, detached, etc.
Findings of studies that he quoted show a greater demand for centrally located development, with convenient access to amenities and "walkability"; an increasingly segmented market reflecting different wants, "different versions of the American dream"; a need for more housing choices, of which there are not many now; and, the necessity for housing markets to respond to trends.
"Policies and investments need to 'set the table' for the type of development that communities want," Anderson said.
The Sonoran Institute studied six communities in Colorado, Montana and Idaho (Carbondale, Eagle, Buena Vista, Bozeman, Teton Valley and Boise). It found that neighborhood character, "a sense of place," is more important to people than the size of their homes. Generally, a single family detached unit is preferred, but housing choices are limited. Sixty percent of respondents said there are few or very few options in their price range and in the neighborhood where they want to be, according to the study.
Anderson cited various findings from the study that support the conclusion that most people want to live within walking distance of daily needs and amenities. Well over half of respondents in the Sonoran study would prefer proximity to a larger lot size; nationally, that number is a little over a third. Sixty-five percent (43 percent nationally) would choose being close to parks and recreation over a larger lot. And, a similar number both in the six communities and nationally (37-38 percent) who prefer a detached home would take an attached unit (condo, for example) if they could be in a walkable neighborhood.
Only 16 percent of the available housing in the six communities, however, is walkable.
Speaking to the audience, Anderson said, "You guys have a tremendous opportunity here. Bringing housing downtown is a huge part of creating a sense of vitality that will make people stop. It's not just for people who live here."
Tamara Gulde, vice president of Ouray Chamber Resort Association, pointed out that Ouray already has the qualities Anderson mentioned, but Ridgway can use this data "to make it happen."
Anderson then turned to policy ideas using the information from the studies. "For the last 40 years we've been building the same way—separating uses and allowing for larger lot sizes and home sizes," he said. Communities can respond to the emerging market by enabling "placemaking"; investing in core areas; making sound infrastructure investments; acting on pedestrian preferences; allowing and encouraging housing choices; and, working with developers to make projects affordable. In response to a question from resident Dudley Case, Anderson said 'infrastructure' more and more is seen as including broadband access.
Anderson began the presentation by emphasizing the impact of the housing market on the national economy. Twelve million homes in the nation, one in five, are underwater, meaning owners owe more than the home is worth. "Recovery (from the recession) is deeply connected to the housing market," he told attendees.
Overbuilding, too, has had a significant impact. In fact, one Idaho community has overbuilt by 100 years, he said.
Studies cited by Anderson included a National Association of Realtors Community Preference Study from 2011, Demand Institute's "The Shifting Nature of U.S. Housing Demand" and a Pew Research Group study, as well as the Sonoran Institute study.
The NAR study found that for housing market consumers nationally, cost matters. Fifty-nine percent of buyers will make tradeoffs to stay in budget. There is a growing interest in "a sense of place." A majority of people prefer to live in an area with a mix of houses, shops and businesses. Only 12 percent of respondents prefer a traditional suburban neighborhood, while 56 percent prefer a compact, walkable neighborhood. Convenience and commute time also ranked highly, with 59 percent choosing a smaller home if the commute to work is fewer than 20 minutes.
The Demand Institute study found that people are demanding a mix of amenities, which, Anderson said, "You guys have here." Suburban living is less attractive, while walkability and a sense of community are more important, according to the study.
The drivers of change in our four-county region, Anderson said, include two major age groups, the baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and Generation Y (born between 1982 and 1999). A member of the audience commented that getting Gen Y'ers here will take jobs, to which Anderson agreed. "If you want a community with a blend of ages, creating jobs for the younger generation will be significant, especially because towns like Ridgway do not have the economic base of larger towns."
The Sonoran Institute is a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1990. It assists communities in the western U.S. to conserve resources and manage growth by collaborating finding practical solutions and thinking about the big picture.
"The Sonoran Institute has found a niche in its role of working with people on all sides, to help communities in the West 'muddle through different decisions'," Anderson said. It finds common alignment on issues through research, technical assistance and training.
The Wednesday night dinner continued a 10-year series of meetings among the City of Ouray, Town of Ridgway and Ouray County. "Establishing and nurturing positive and effective relationships is essential to effective and good governance across and among our political boundaries," Coates, who hosted the event, said. "The more we communicate and collaborate as communities, the more our communities benefit."
Ouray City Administrator said, "I believe the dinner is a wonderful opportunity for our elected officials and staff to get together and discuss matters that affect us all. It provides a casual environment to allow our elected officials to get to know each other and establish important working relationships to move forward."