Housing costs closely tied to regional economic future

If the economic future of northern Nevada depends on its ability to attract an entrepreneurial and technologically savvy workforce, the cost of housing presents a big challenge.

And a fellow who's spent the last couple of years wrestling with the issue in Utah suggests that the answer may require some soul-searching analysis to accompany initiatives by local government and the private sector.

Alan Matheson, executive director of the Coalition for Utah's Future, will speak at a Wednesday breakfast meeting of members of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada.

The cost of housing and its relationship to economic development are getting a fresh look in northern Nevada after the region saw some of the fastest growth in housing prices of any region in the country in the last couple of years.

At the same time, the Target2010 study of the region's economic future undertaken by EDAWN is beginning to suggest that the region's ability to attract a well-educated and skilled workforce.

"Good workers are attracted to where they can afford a home," Matheson said in a phone interview last week.

Other economic regions besides northern Nevada are aware of the challenge.

Matheson said his Utah group which operates as "Envision Utah" began its work on affordable housing with deep interviews to probe the values of about 90 residents of the state.

Knowledge of residents' values, in turn, allowed Envision Utah to talk in meaningful ways about the need for housing that workers can afford.

"To communicate with someone, you persuade with reason, you motivate with emotion," he said. "You touch that emotion with appeals to values."

Envision Utah knew from its study of economic statistics, for instance, that much of the need for housing for the state's workforce wasn't driven by migrating Californians. Instead, it reflected the needs of young people who'd grown up in the state and were moving into the workforce.

That knowledge, in combination with the family-oriented values of many Utah residents, helped Envision Utah to steer the housing issue away from a close-the-gate debate over growth.

Instead of searching for government-funded solutions, the Utah group focuses much of its work on development of private-sector answers to the creation of affordable housing.

Often, Matheson said, that means that local governments must be convinced to remove roadblocks such as minimum-acreage restrictions that push housing costs upward.

And political support for the creation of affordable housing, he said, depends on careful attention to issues that worry property owners and public officials issues such as the possibility that large tracts of affordable housing will reduce property values or bring social problems.

Changes in development patterns, he said, hold particular promise for creation of truly affordable housing.

In many cities where less-expensive housing is built farther and farther away from the core city, Matheson said, the unstated rule is this: "Drive 'til you qualify."

But while far-flung developments may provide less-expensive housing, they require higher transportation expenditures for families.

And the social costs parents sitting in traffic rather than sitting at the dinner table and the environmental costs also are significant, Matheson said.

That's brought increased attention to transit-oriented developments in which housing is located within walking distance of public transportation.

If nothing else, Matheson said, a family that relies on public transit for workday commuting may be able to save $8,000 a year on the costs of a second car.

"We're seeing growing demand for that option," he said.

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