Housing in Flagstaff is “the worst I’ve ever seen,” said Devonna McLaughlin, executive director of Housing Solutions Northern Arizona (HSNA).

His organization recently released its 2022 Rental Affordability Report based on a survey of 50 market-priced apartment complexes (8,405 units) and 10 income-limited complexes (730 units) between November 2021 and January.

The report summarizes a lot of data, and none of it looks good.

According to the report, a minimum-wage worker in Flagstaff would need to work about 87 hours a week to rent an average two-bedroom apartment. The average price for such an apartment is currently around $1,758 per month.

Under common definitions of affordable housing – where housing costs no more than 30% of one’s income – a household would need to bring in more than $70,000 a year to afford a two-bedroom apartment. According to the 2019 census, the median individual income in Flagstaff was just $21,503. Quick math highlights the problem – it takes about four average earners to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

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This “extreme disparity” between income and housing has created a pervasive need in the community, McLaughlin said.

“It’s not just low- and middle-income households that are struggling,” she said. “It’s along the housing continuum.”

For its part, HSNA is doing its best to keep up. Every day they answer “phone call after phone call” from people looking for accommodation, but recently they have had to refer people elsewhere.

“Our inventory is full,” McLaughlin said.

Lawrence Peterson is one of those people in need who could not find help through HSNA. A longtime member of the community, Peterson is a veteran and best known for leading the Flagstaff Folk Festival.

He went to HSNA for housing assistance last summer.

“They weren’t taking anyone on their roster,” Peterson said. “There is such a population in need.”

Luckily for Peterson, his veteran status gave him access to housing assistance not usually available, and through the organization Nation’s Finest, he was put up at Motel 6 on Lucky Lane.

“If I wasn’t a vet, I don’t think I would still be in town,” he said.

Peterson remains hopeful that an apartment will open and is currently on waiting lists for at least five different complexes across the city. So far, however, nothing has changed.

“We are overloaded,” he said,[Affordable housing] is obsolete in this city. It’s full. People who have it don’t give it up.

Housing supply is certainly part of the problem, McLaughlin said, but added that the causes of Flagstaff’s housing problems are many and the solution is not as simple as creating more homes.

“We can’t get out of the affordability crisis,” she said.

There is a need to increase supply, but also to address other issues, such as the prevalence of short-term rentals and vacation homes that take up valuable housing stock in Flagstaff. Through SB 1350, the Arizona Legislature stripped cities of local authority to regulate short-term rentals, making it all the more difficult to resolve a housing crisis.

Lobbying at the state level is one of many actions needed to resolve Flagstaff’s problems. This multifaceted perspective is reflected in Flagstaff’s recently adopted 10-year housing plan, but McLaughlin remains skeptical of the plan’s effectiveness.

“I think it’s a great first step,” McLaughlin said. “But if it sits on a shelf and we don’t do anything, it doesn’t mean much. The plan is the easy step. I think the most complicated and difficult step is to do the work now.

Doing the job takes money, and Flagstaff residents will likely see a bond measure to fund housing projects during this year’s election cycle. Whenever such a measure appears, it is likely to be met with the common retort against affordable housing initiatives: “If you can’t afford it, don’t live here”.

To this argument, McLaughlin urges people to follow such a statement to its logical conclusion.

“If you’re talking about people who can’t afford to live here, who are moving out, who are we talking about?” McLaughlin said. “We are talking about teachers. We are talking about daycare educators. We’re talking about 911 operators. What if the people checking you at the grocery store walk away? Or the people who serve you food or clean the dishes at the restaurant leave? If you want these people to be there to meet your needs as a consumer, then they must be able to live with dignity and respect.

Sean Golightly can be contacted at [email protected]