Razing Affordability: How a Student Housing Project Turned Into a Political Minefield

The following article appeared in the May issue of The Noise, an arts, entertainment and news outlet covering Northern Arizona.

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On February 11 of this year, the public comment portion of Flagstaff’s City Council meeting erupted in an outpouring of grievances that marked what has quickly become the most controversial social and legal issue in the city. The speakers were residents of Arrowhead Village, a Flagstaff trailer park where Georgia-based Landmark Properties plans to remove their mobile homes to build a 650-bed luxury student housing complex.

The frustrated, pleading testimony to City Council came after Landmark Properties hosted an open informational meeting with Arrowhead residents, who showed up to find out whatever details they could about the fate of their homes. As the following City Council meeting made clear, they were quite unsatisfied with the results.

Resident Anna Maria Velasco Ortiz was first to the microphone. “It was a total waste of time. Landmark could not or would not answer the questions that we had.” After her comments, a line of other long-term residents of Arrowhead came forward, each of them echoing Ortiz’s sentiments that no real answers had been given.

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Children of Arrowhead Village arrive home from school.

Most spoke through a translator – a service not provided for residents at the Landmark meeting – pleading with council to consider what the demolition of Arrowhead Village would mean for their families. “This news affects not just us, but our children,” said one long-term resident. Others questioned whether the financial conditions of their displacement would even allow them to remain in Flagstaff.

City Council candidate Jim McCarthy also attended the meeting, and has since taken a formal position against the housing development.  He agrees that Landmark could have done better at communicating with residents. “I don’t know if they were really prepared for the meeting. I did ask a couple of questions to company representatives and did not get answers that were well thought out.”

Mr. McCarthy says that the sheer quantity of people who showed up to Landmark’s open meeting reveals why the displacement of Arrowhead Village will be the hot-button issue of the year. “There were a lot of people there. Hundreds of people. Most planning and zoning issues, nobody shows up. This thing is very controversial.” The momentum to address the issue has been channeled into City Council meetings, a trend Mr. McCarthy expects to continue. “There are essentially people every week that stand up and talk about their concerns for this project, and there are a lot of people there. They’re going to fill up the room. I can see it coming. They come close when it isn’t even on the agenda.”

Zoning Out

Arrowhead Village is comprised of 56 families who own their mobile homes, but rent the lots on which those homes sit for about $285/month plus utilities. Though City Council has no control over whether the owner of Arrowhead sells the property to Landmark, the construction of the student housing project requires rezoning of the property from mobile home status to “highway commercial”.

One of the project’s most vocal opponents is Friends of Flagstaff’s Future (F3), an organization dedicated to “advocacy of policies supporting a livable community”. Director Moran Henn points out that the rezoning required for Landmark’s project makes the Arrowhead Village issue a public concern. “I think it’s very important to understand that this is not about private property rights. When a landowner asks for rezoning, that becomes a community issue.”

Having served six years on the Planning and Zoning Commission, Jim McCarthy agrees, and says that one of the first things these commissions generally do when considering rezoning proposals is to see if a neighborhood plan exists. Arrowhead sits in the La Plaza Vieja neighborhood, where the final draft of an official, 75-page neighborhood plan was completed in 2011 after more than three years of work. Unfortunately, one particular part of the plan seems to have generated as much confusion as clarity about what the community envisions for the area.

The “Tier 3” Question

La Plaza Vieja (“The Old Town”) is Flagstaff’s original settlement, taking its name when a series of fires in 1883 forced the city’s train depot to move a half-mile east, to where it remains today. (The new location was first dubbed “New Town”, but eventually adopted “Flagstaff”.) La Plaza Vieja became a settling place for Mexican immigrants who worked on the railroad and in lumber mills, and has always had a strong Mexican-American culture, a trend still evidenced today by the almost exclusively Latino families that occupy Arrowhead. La Plaza Vieja’s neighborhood association, which is open to the public, views its official plan primarily as a way to preserve “a safe neighborhood which respects and preserves the cultural dignity” of the area.

Landmark’s representative, Joe Villasenor, tells me that any discussion about rezoning should take into consideration that the student housing project fits nicely with this official neighborhood plan. “Everything we’re doing is in conformance with the La Plaza Vieja Neighborhood Plan. We’ve been looking at it and using it as a guide. That’s the really important piece that I think people are missing here.”

Mr. Villasenor seems to be referring to a section of the plan titled “Mobile Home Redevelopment”, which contains the following suggestions for the Arrowhead Village mobile home park:

Tier 1 – Install a sidewalk and street trees along Blackbird Roost
Tier 2 – Replace uninhabitable structures with habitable ones
Tier 3 – Complete redevelopment plan, but ONLY with residential relocation plan

Laura Myers, the neighborhood association’s outreach director, says that Mr. Villasenor is simply wrong. “What we were wanting was another mobile home park, not five-story, 650-bed student housing.” When I ask her whether Landmark’s plan could be considered to fit the Tier 3 “complete redevelopment” category, she acknowledges that it may seem that way, but insists that this was not their intention. “Any sentence is up for interpretation. I can interpret any sentence one way and you another. But a new and up-to-date mobile home park is what we were talking about.”

To support her claim, she shows me a report from a 2008 “visioning session” during which the neighborhood plan was being developed. Under a heading titled “Prioritize Goals and Strategies”, one relevant item stands out: “Upgrade mobile homes”. Ms. Myers also shows me a letter that is currently being distributed by the neighborhood association to residents of La Plaza Vieja. It seems to make their stance on the issue very clear: “It is extremely important that we band together as a neighborhood and let the City Council and the developer know that this project, as proposed, does not belong in La Plaza Vieja neighborhood!”

The letter addresses issues of affordable housing (sorely lacking in Flagstaff), building design, traffic in a neighborhood already sealed off by a busy Rt. 66, the safety of hundreds of students crossing the 4-lane highway many times every day, and other concerns.


Living With NAU

NAU is not involved in the Landmark development deal directly, but it is arguably the school’s booming enrollment that is causing student housing developers like Landmark to see financial opportunities in surrounding neighborhoods. NAU has an official enrollment goal of 25,531 by the year 2020, and it is well on its way to surpassing that number. This has put considerable strains on the on-campus housing units, which can only hold 8,600. A Resident Assistant who wishes to remain anonymous tells me that this past semester was especially bad, with some students forced to bunk in various lounges, common areas and exercise rooms, in some cases with up to 4 other people. This was confirmed by another student employee.

Some of this overcrowding may be alleviated in the coming semester when several new residence halls will bring on-campus housing capacity to 9,000, but Moran Henn of F3 says that the general outward expansion into other communities was what originally grabbed their attention about Landmark’s plan for Arrowhead Village. “Even before we realized there was going to be displacement of residents, we came to this issue because it’s a historic neighborhood, and when you add 650 units of student housing into a single story historic neighborhood that’s already congested with traffic… that’s why we came to this issue in the first place.”

Laura Myers of the neighborhood association tells me that NAU bears some financial responsibility for the housing needs of students it draws to the area. “They are able to get capital for other projects. We want to see them get the capital they need to make student and resident housing on campus, or on their own property. They’re involved in educating these students and have no idea how this is affecting neighborhoods.”

In the same week that The Arizona Daily Sun first reported on Landmark’s plans for Arrowhead Village, it also printed a seemingly unrelated story on The Grove, another of Landmark’s student housing developments in Flagstaff. Police arrived at The Grove that night to find 200-300 people dancing and drinking alcohol in the street. The ground was littered with trash, and they claimed to have seen at least one person throwing glass bottles from a second story window onto the sidewalks below. Police could not get in touch with management at The Grove, and were unable to even determine who lived in the unit from which the party had spilled.

They were back only a few hours later to break up another party, where a partially clothed 18-year-old woman was found nearly dead of alcohol poisoning in a shower. A friend was holding her to “keep her from choking on her vomit again”.

The night in question took place on Homecoming weekend, which is notorious for its heavy drinking, but Moran seems to suggest that this is an exaggerated example of student culture that often causes problems for neighborhoods in which they are located. “The reason people want to move off-campus is that they don’t want to follow the regulations and alcohol restrictions that on-campus housing has, and it’s the communities that bear the brunt of living next door to these developments.”

Landmark representative Joe Villasenor views their role quite differently. “At the first open house meeting [with Arrowhead residents], there had to be 30-40 students there. The comments they left on the cards were compelling, because many of them talked about the deplorable conditions of housing outside the campus. Leaks in the roofs, windows ripped out, just crazy stuff that they’re living in during winter months up there.” He believes that The Grove and the proposed project at Arrowhead Village is providing safer, more comfortable housing for students who would otherwise get much less for the same price.

Compensation

Still, much of the controversy surrounding the Landmark plan is focused on the residents who will be forced to move. Only 24 hours before this article’s deadline, Landmark held another meeting with residents to address criticisms leveled at their first attempt. Mr. Villasenor claimed that word of the student housing project became public earlier than Landmark had anticipated, before they had opportunity to solidify the details that residents were eager to know.

The presentation made clear, for the first time, precise monetary amounts that Arrowhead Village residents would be compensated for the displacement. Though the details are somewhat complex, they primarily include the following awards:

– Relocation Fund: $1250 for a single-wide trailer, $2500 for a double-wide
– Moving Allowance: Based on the number of rooms with furniture, from $700 for one room to $1100 for five rooms

– Six Months Rent at Arrowhead Rates: $1710
– Rental / Down Payment Assistance: up to $6750, which Landmark claims is the difference between Arrowhead rates and the average mobile home park rate in Flagstaff over 42 months


The total ends up being between $7,000 and $10,000 per trailer, assuming that the residents can prove ownership. Mr. Villasenor insists that Landmark is going above and beyond the federal standard to accommodate the Arrowhead Village residents who will be displaced. Federal law, for instance, requires that anyone who receives moving assistance be a US Citizen. “We have determined that citizenship, to us, does not matter. My client has said ‘We will treat everybody fairly.’”

But Ms. Henn of F3 says that financial compensation is not the sole concern, and that regardless of what is being offered in the short-term, there won’t be compensation that will allow them to remain in Flagstaff for longer than the rental assistance lasts. “The people of Arrowhead have told us that even if by some miracle they could find somewhere as cheap, it would be a 30-minute drive. [Arrowhead Village] is a location where they can walk to work, walk to school and public transportation is available.” One 14-year Arrowhead resident at the February council meeting testified to this, saying, “I can’t drive, and I have to go to the laundromat, to Safeway, to the dollar store.”


The Battle Ahead

If opponents of the Landmark plan are to succeed in stopping its implementation, they will have to prevent the property from being rezoned for “highway commercial” use by the city. This will be discussed and voted on in three public meetings:

June 11th: a public hearing/vote before the Planning and Zoning Commission

July 1st: first hearing before City Council

July 15th: final hearing/vote before City Council

Jim McCarthy says that even if Landmark’s plan is approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission, a close vote could cause City Council to think harder about its own decision. “The outcome is not preordained. This could go either way.”

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