It’s a problem that continues to grow with no immediate relief in sight. Available and affordable housing is not a new issue here in Sedona but it is one that has come even more to the forefront this year as businesses — both big and small — struggle to find and keep employees.
While the resort industry is often hit the hardest, it’s also impacting professions where salaries are much higher. So what’s the answer?
Linda Martinez, a local business owner and former chairwoman of the defunct Sedona Affordable Housing Commission, recently spearheaded a citizen committee to look into the ever-increasing problem.
“From what we hear from businesses who need to fill positions and keep workers, and workers who work in our businesses, it is a crisis,” she said. “This issue is at the heart of who Sedona is as a diverse community animated by the arts and our environment. The people who work in these fields cannot afford to live here. Should that matter? It should since local workers are the backbone of our economy, schools, and service and critical providers. We also cannot separate increasing traffic from workers driving in from surrounding areas and [having] to go across town to work.”
While not a new issue, Martinez said this is one that has increased significantly over time for several reasons. She feels one of the major factors of late was the passing of Senate Bill 1350, which allowed shortterm vacations rentals throughout the state.
Up until Jan. 1 of this year, it was against city code to offer rentals of less than 30 days even though the practice here had been going on for many years.
“SB 1350 has allowed short-term rentals, converting hundreds of long-term rentals into vacation homes and the Verde Valley is no longer a reliable answer for housing,” she said. “A feasibility study conducted for a proposed apartment complex in Cottonwood stated that the Verde Valley needs 1,770 units of rentals by 2020. In addition, Sedona has not had any new apartments added in 20 years, but has lost several complexes to condo conversion. Once they are converted, they can become short-term rentals.”
Martinez said she’s not looking to make short-term rentals out to be the scapegoat but that it is an issue.
“Short-term rentals have provided an opportunity for many of our workers and those on fixed incomes to remain in Sedona,” she said. “However, there has been nothing to replace the loss of longterm rentals. Also, stable, long-term renters have no options.”
Businesses dealt with this issue in the past, but relied on options in Cottonwood and the Verde Valley, Martinez said. Today, that has changed as other communities are struggling to provide enough housing.
Critical care providers, teachers, resort workers, grocery and retail stores and even the post office cannot find enough workers, she said. As for ownership, at the time the Housing Commission was formed, Martinez said the gap between wages and the cost of buying a home were the highest in the state.
The medium cost of a home was $325,000 — today the medium cost is $425,000 and wages have increased slowly. Many communities similar to Sedona have dealt with this issue and come up with creative solutions, she said. Some states have continuing development revenue to support housing, but Arizona does not.
“We acknowledge that there can be fear in the community about what all of this will mean for Sedona,” she said. “We can look at long-term housing in the past for Sedona, such as Accessory Dwelling Units, and the fears did not materialize.”
So what does the near future hold for Sedona in terms of housing? Martinez said as fellow business owners tell her, they spend too much time on recruiting and training only to either lose the best candidates or have high turnover rates.
“We will continue to lose the character of our smalltown community,” she said. “The city loses young families every year and the schools show it.”
A Problem for Businesses
Sedona Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jennifer Wesselhoff said the concern from many business owners is twofold — not enough people in the workforce and the difficulty those employees have in finding housing.
“I don’t remember this issue being as prevalent in the past,” she said. “I think there are a lot of things that are contributing to it — a booming economy, recovery of the real estate market and short-term rentals. People are realizing that they can rent their house short-term and get $3,000 and rent it for weekends only versus renting it long-term for $1,000 a month.”
Like others, Wesselhoff, who is also a member of the citizen committee, said there isn’t going to be one simple answer to this problem.
“It’s like the transportation issue we’re having — there’s not one silver bullet that’s going to solve our housing issue,” she said. “There’s going to have to be multiple options. And will we totally solve it? Probably not. But can we provide more opportunities for diversity? I think we can. But we’re trying not to use the term affordable housing. Because, what is really affordable?” She went on to add, “Who are we as a community and do we value diversity? Many of us feel we’d be a richer community if we had more diversity in terms of age, ethnicity and types of people with different incomes.”
The City’s View
The Sedona City Council has made it clear in recent years that it has no intention of being a landlord. But according to City Manager Justin Clifton, there are many things the city can do instead.
“There are all kinds of ways to address housing diversity, affordability and accessibility,” he said. “The city can remove regulatory barriers such as the recent removal of strict density limits and prioritize affordable housing contributions when negotiating community benefits as part of a rezone. The city can provide incentives to developers/builders who provide better housing opportunities. The city can also help bridge the financial gap that exists between the cost of housing and the price working professionals can afford. This can be done through tax credit programs, federal grants, partnerships with nonprofits or direct financial contributions to the right kind of housing development.”
Clifton thinks this is a serious problem and one that is bound to get worse.
The lack of housing options seems to be a significant factor in limiting available workforce. Worse than that, he said if the city’s teachers, police officers, veterans, librarians and other residents who make up the core of the community can’t live here, then he’s not sure Sedona will be much of a community at all.
“So in the end, a robust program that helps ensure housing choices is really a program about preserving our community,” he said.
The citizen group meeting to take on this issue is not a city-organized one, Clifton said. Rather, it’s a grassroots group of thoughtful residents who came to the city to ask for help.
“My hope is that the group will help us to understand the nature of the problem and generate real, practical solutions that we can implement sooner rather than later,” he said. “So far I’m very impressed by the level of ingenuity and tenacity of the group and especially Linda and Ron Martinez who have led the effort.”
Similar to what Wesselhoff mentioned, Clifton said often the term “affordable” conjures up images in the minds of some that is just not correct in terms of what is being sought in Sedona.
“When people think of ‘affordable housing,’ they often think of crime-riddled slums where even the police won’t go at night,” he said. “This image simply does not reflect reality. Addressing this housing crisis will depend largely on people realizing that this is about nurses, office professionals, nonprofit directors, small businesses owners, vets who served our country, retirees who worked their whole lives here or young families just hoping to do so.
“As different as these people might be from one another they all share a love for this great community and an opportunity to call Sedona home. I can’t think of anything more worthwhile than working to make that happen.”