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Arizona’s housing crisis goes hand-in-hand with state’s water & heat crises
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Arizona’s housing crisis goes hand-in-hand with state’s water & heat crises

  • Building projects in a state where 6.5 million people live in counties classified by the Census Bureau as being part of the desert Southwest must keep water scarcity in mind.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comBuilding projects in a state where 6.5 million people live in counties classified by the Census Bureau as being part of the desert Southwest must keep water scarcity in mind.

A recent study from the National Low Income Housing Coalition ranked Arizona among the five worst states for affordable housing, with just 26 available options for every 100 extremely low income households. 

Amid this crisis, state legislators met Wednesday with experts to discuss the environmental challenges to increasing the supply of affordable housing in Arizona — with an eye toward finding sustainable and efficient solutions.

This was the fourth meeting of a housing supply study committee established in April, after a failed attempt to resolve the housing shortage by circumventing zoning regulations for faster developments led to calls for further legislative investigation of the issue. 

Developing affordable housing in a desert state: water conservation is key

Building projects in a state where 6.5 million people live in counties classified by the Census Bureau as being part of the desert Southwest must keep water scarcity in mind — especially after federal officials made cuts to Arizona’s water supply just last week, said Warren Tenney, the executive director of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association.  

“We’re in a period of a lot of uncertainty, and therefore it is really important that we act smartly,” he said. 

Fortunately, Tenney said, state law has some regulations in place to prevent unsustainable growth. Under the Assured Water Supply Program, developments in Prescott, Phoenix, Pinal, Tucson and Santa Cruz must have a guaranteed 100-year supply of water to be approved for construction. 

When considering the construction of new housing from a water consumption standpoint, Tenney said that high-density housing is the right choice. Such projects, like apartment complexes or duplexes, mean smaller lots, which reduces the amount of outdoor water use. 

“Outdoor water consumption is the biggest element of household water demand,” Tenney said. 

This reduced demand, coupled with advancements in indoor water infrastructure like more efficient plumbing, helps conserve water.

Combining land development projects with proper water management practices could go a long way toward safeguarding existing water resources, Rep. Sarah Liguori added. The Phoenix Democrat gave a presentation on behalf of the Tucson-based Watershed Management Group and championed the model ordinance created by the Net Blue initiative, the goal of which is neutral water growth. 

“Net Blue is a developer’s approach to offset a projected increase in water demand by decreasing water use on- or off-site,” she explained. 

Under the example ordinance, developers would commit to taking steps to reduce water use or replenish groundwater sources by including high efficiency fixtures, like plumbing or appliances that use less water, building infrastructure that captures rainwater runoff, or even removing portions of grass. The steps available to developers would be tailored to the state and region for maximum success

“It’s a buy-in from our government and our citizens to continue to drive water sustainable efforts here in Arizona. And for developers, it’s the marriage of water use planning and land use planning so that it’s good for our future, it’s good for the wallet and it’s good for the health of Arizona as a whole,” Liguori said. 

Adapting city zoning plans to meet current needs

Municipalities across the state develop a general zoning plan that guides the area’s physical development and determines what goes where: a park here, a shopping center there, single-family homes on this block and multi-family housing on that block. 

Jerry Stabley, the president of the Arizona Planning Association, said some designated areas could use revising. One idea to help streamline affordable housing development would be repurposing commercial areas. 

“The most bang for the buck is to consider those commercial areas and see how we can address the approval process in those areas (for affordable housing), especially if we’re looking for multi-family housing,” Stabley said. 

Some cities set aside a sizable amount of land for commercial development in the ‘80s and ‘90s because that’s where revenue was coming from, Stabley said. With the advent of online shopping, that’s no longer the case: Now, many buildings lie empty, or land slated for commercial development grows fallow from lack of use. These areas would be perfect for the development of affordable housing because they are often located near public transit, Stabley said. 

Getting cities to buy in isn’t easy. Last year, Peoria rejected a plan to build apartments in Old Town, near 83rd and Grand Avenues, on the site of a Smitty’s grocery store that closed in 1997. The city’s planning and zoning commission had approved the plan, and a study the city paid for said redevelopment of Old Town hinges on having more people living there. 

But the city council refused to deviate from a 2011 plan that calls for the plot of land to be built into a convention center, college or hotel.

Adjusting single-family housing zones to include multi-family projects is another way to increase the supply of affordable housing options, though they might face opposition from surrounding neighborhoods. 

In Tucson, self-contained units built on residential properties near single-family homes have emerged as a creative solution, and they are one of a few options the APA backs as a way to mitigate the affordable housing shortage. 

“The APA supports accessory dwellings…(and) being able to bring in duplexes, triplexes, maybe even quadplexes, into areas with single family zoning is something that is supported by APA,” Stabley said.

Where options like accessory dwellings run into problems — besides calling for zoning changes — is in neighborhood restrictions like HOA rules. 

“No matter what the city does, the private restrictions are going to prohibit those second units,” said Frank Cassidy, a land use lawyer representing the League of Arizona Cities and Towns. 

Stabley agreed that HOAs and NIMBYism (the unwillingness of residents to allow the construction of affordable housing for fear of a negative effect on property values) were among the more difficult challenges zoning reform faces. 

Cassidy added the concern that, because private restrictions were most often present in higher-income neighborhoods, zoning reform strategies like accessory dwellings tend to have an outsized impact on lower-income areas. 

Climate change: a demand for quality affordable housing

“In 2021, there were 339 (heat-related) deaths…and this year, to date, we are at 334 and it is August 23rd. We are not yet done with the summer,” said Melissa Guardaro, an urban heat research professor at Arizona State University. 

The future, she warned, will be even warmer. Last year, the Valley broke a heat record after four consecutive days of temperatures above 115 degrees. Discussions about increasing housing should keep this environment firmly in mind, Guardaro said. Affordable housing shouldn’t just be inexpensive, but also livable. Proximity to public transit is helpful, if the walkways and transit stations are navigable during high temperatures. Low rent is great if air conditioning costs don’t skyrocket because of inefficiently ventilated buildings. 

“We need to address the tension of competing commitments between the developing community to maximize profit and that of the people living in these communities,” she said. 

This is especially true in the case of trailer and mobile homes, which often form the bulk of unsubsidized affordable housing options

“Despite the fact that only 5% of Maricopa County residents live in mobile homes, a really disproportionate 31% of all indoor heat-related deaths between 2011 and 2020 occurred in mobile homes,” said Lora A. Phillips, an ASU research professor. 

Phillips also noted that Maricopa County has an eviction rate far greater than the national average. Eviction filings last month, she said, were higher than any month since July 2008, shortly after the foreclosure crisis, according to data from the Maricopa County Justice Courts. 

This is especially concerning when as much as 36% of evictions lead to homelessness. In a state that regularly spikes above 100 degrees, being outside for prolonged periods of time can be deadly. Access to affordable housing can be a life-saving opportunity, Phillips said. 

“Affordable housing is a key lever for reducing heat-related deaths,” she said.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.


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