Pima County Housing Commission should stick around, Supes say, but with new members & mission
18-year-old commission should put higher priority on low-cost housing, officials say
Pima County should keep their current Housing Commission, county board members said last week, despite recommendations from a county-led task force to end it and start over with new members and a stronger focus on building more low-cost homes. The county board held off on sunsetting the commission and asked staff to come up with a way to keep the 18-year old commission and instead update its bylaws.
The group has not been able to hold a meeting since 2020, because it has not been able to meet quorum requirements.
The Pima County Housing Commission began in 2004 with $10 million in voter-approved bonds with a mission to open more housing units for low- and middle-income families. That mission to create more low-cost housing, however, “was no longer occurring,” County Administrator Jan Lesher said Monday, even though the commission was able to find another $120 million in funding and create 585 new homes for low-income families by 2017, according a county memo from last November.
A task force on affordable housing put together in November by the County Administrator's Office — at the time led by Lesher on an acting basis while Chuck Huckelberry was hospitalized — urged the supervisors to vote to end the Housing Commission and charter a new housing group, the Commission on Housing Affordability.
The task force, made of 22 members from local housing organizations and governments, also made several recommendations for building more housing and improving related county services based on a series of eight meetings from early February to late May that were open to the public.
At a meeting of the Board of Supervisors last Monday, Chair Sharon Bronson said she was "not ready" to decide on the setting up the commission yet, and Supervisor Steve Christy suggested that Lesher bring back a plan for keeping the current commission but with the task force members at the helm. The board agreed to wait until the second meeting in October to hear an alternative plan from Lesher that would change the Housing Commission's bylaws to include the task force's recommendations and replace the current membership with the task force, which is twice as big.
The existing Housing Commission is made up of 11 members, with each of the five supervisors appointing two members each along with one by the county administrator, but six seats on the commission are vacant after the four-year term of those members expired in 2020.
Four of those vacant seats, including the chair, were left unfilled by Supervisors Matt Heinz and Rex Scott. The other two vacant seats would have to be filled by Christy and Lesher.
Three members of the Housing Commission have not taken their oaths to be on the commission since being appointed in 2020, which leaves only two acting members. The group, which is supposed to meet the third Monday of the month, has not been able to meet since 2020 as it needs at least six members for a quorum, according to its bylaws.
Affordable Housing Task Force
Four recommendations were made to the county board by the Affordable Housing Task Force:
- Allow the current Housing Commission to expire
- In its place, charter the Pima County Commission on Housing Affordability
- Appoint members suggested by staff or individually appointed by each supervisor to the commission
- Direct the commission to work with county departments on developing county properties and finding groups who want to work with the county to develop these properties for affordable housing
The Affordable Housing Task Force includes housing — and some health — officials from Tucson, South Tucson, Pima County, Tucson Metro Chamber of Commerce, Old Pueblo Community Services and a few private companies such as HSL Properties, which owns apartment complexes across Arizona, and JL Investments, which buys homes in Tucson.
If a new housing commission were created, the members of the task force would be invited to form the “inaugural body,” per their recommendations to the county board. Supervisor Scott suggested that staff ask the individual task force members if they plan on continuing in some way in the future to know if they’ll keep the “broad base” of the commission.
Restarting the housing commission is the best way for it to create more housing in the future, the task force recommended to the board, but Christy said that they don’t need to throw the baby out with the bath water “when we already have the process and model in place and it already has a very deep and broad membership.”
Christy asked Lesher if she “would be open to, instead of disbanding (the housing commission), keeping it in place and merely modifying the existing housing commission bylaws?”
The answer was yes, Lesher said, the board can update the bylaws to focus more on how to build affordable housing instead of letting the commission sunset and be replaced with a group that has "housing affordablility" in the name.
None of the supervisors opposed Christy's idea to hold off on deciding the fate of the Housing Commission until October. Bronson “was not ready to decide on this now,” whether to create a new housing group, she said at the meeting.
Priorities for any housing group
Though Christy's motion had no opposition, a couple of supervisors had different ideas about what will be most important to include in the design of a new or renewed commission.
Increasing the supply of housing has to be the priority for any housing group that the board appoints moving forward, Scott said.
“If our charge to this group is not to focus first on the issue of supply, then we are missing the boat,” Scott said. “If we are not working immediately and proactively and primarily to increase the supply of (housing) in our community, we are not going to deal with the twin issue of affordability.”
The most important piece to keep for Supervisor Adelita Grijalva, whose district is mostly metro Tucson, is having members on the commission appointed by the county board as is the case in other commissions such as Election Integrity.
“The city of Tucson representation is critical,” Grijalva said, pointing to how much of the county's affordable housing development takes place in the city. “The city has the bulk of the funding and responsibility.”
Increasing affordable housing “has to be something we do regionally,” Grijalva said, not “in isolation.” So far the county and city have worked on housing “in isolation for the most part,” she said, but they can work together by both being represented on the commission.
The city of Tucson has a similar commission, the Commission on Equitable Housing and Development, also made up of private citizens and public officials from both the city and county as well as South Tucson.
Tucson’s commission replaced the Metro Housing Commission, which was created in 1993 and expired in early 2020. The CEHD’s founding ordinance set it to sunset in July 2022, but it has since been renewed.
More info on recommendations
Scott also asked staff to also follow up with more input on an additional five recommendations made by the task force specifically for building more low-cost housing and keeping more families housed.
The task gave three recommendations for how the county can build more housing:
- Create a regional housing body
- Find out how to streamline development past zoning and other regulatory processes
- Do an analysis of market rate costs of housing and how much housing is needed
The task force also made two recommendations for keeping people housed:
- Improve services to landlords and tenants
- Find out what new solutions are available such as Community Land Trusts, nonprofits that maintain land while families live in housing developed there. The Pima County Community Land Trust has been around since 2010.
Scott wanted more information from staff on the task force’s recommendations for building more housing, saying the county should have an “inventory” of housing in different communities and the needs in each.
The county may also have to work with other jurisdictions to update and streamline zoning, he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the person who was the top bureaucrat for Pima County when the task force on affordable housing was set up last year.
Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.