Council Debate: Housing, housing, housing and housing

By Bob Hembree
Posted 6/19/24

Page’s workforce housing shortage took center stage at the June 11 Page City Council candidate debate. At the second of three debates organized by Page-Lake Powell Chamber of Commerce, …

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Council Debate: Housing, housing, housing and housing


Page’s workforce housing shortage took center stage at the June 11 Page City Council candidate debate. At the second of three debates organized by Page-Lake Powell Chamber of Commerce, candidates Tina Beckwith, Richard Leightner, Debra Roundtree, and Rick Yanke answered moderator panel and audience questions. Steven Law, Joe Lapekas and Jim Flynn moderated the event.

When asked what his top concerns for Page were, candidate and current council member Richard Leightner answered, “Housing, housing, housing and housing.”

According to the U.S. Census bureau, Page had 2,992 housing units in 2020. Under Leightner, the current City Council, City Manager Darren Coldwell and staff, 122 new homes were added in Page since Jan. 2023. “That's 122 keys, brand-new doors that have been opened in the city of Page,” said Coldwell. “So I think there is a misconception that nothing is happening on housing out there. There is stuff happening.”

Mayor Bill Diak said Page needs another 100 homes.  “We're still going to struggle with housing today, tomorrow and 10 years from now,” said Diak.

Former Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed SB1350 into law May 13, 2016. Ducey’s bill, dubbed the ‘Airbnb bill,’ left tourism cities helpless as vacation rentals absorbed or priced dwindling worker housing out of reach. Arizona cities don’t have the authority cities in other states do. Los Angeles and Denver, for example, only allows --term vacation rentals in primary residences. This prevents out of town investors from absorbing workforce housing.

On July 6, 2022, Arizona Senate Bill 1168 (SB1168) passed, allowing cities and counties to collect registration fees and enforce safety measures, but the state still prohibits limitations needed to maintain workforce housing stock.

Of the four candidates at the June 11 council debate, two have experience as Page City Council members, Leightner and Yanke. This gave them a clear advantage answering moderator questions. Both are longtime Page residents with backgrounds in public safety, Leightner with Classic Air and Yanke with the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office and Page Police Department. Beckwith, with an amiable personality and a long history in Page, while unfamiliar with the complexities of local governments, seemed to understand the community’s needs. Roundtree has experience on the PUSD school board, a city board, and is a longtime Page resident.

Blaming the City Council for short-term rental laws enacted by the State of Arizona, Roundtree demonstrated a lack of understanding of a topic widely covered by local and state news sources. In council meetings, Mayor Bill Diak frequently spoke of Ducey’s Airbnb bill and its consequences for Page and other Arizona cities.

“The City Council created a huge problem,” said Roundtree. “So I was the person that took the information to the City Council when they were voting no against VRBOs, and then they unanimously switched because I became friends with the president of the VRBO, and he lended me his lawyers. But when the City Council chose to allow VRBOs in town, they didn't do it responsibly. They had the information from the president of VRBO of what [they] could and couldn't do, and they chose not to do any of the things that they already knew that they couldn't do. St. George has done some great things where they've had builders come in, and the only thing they're doing which I think builders would be interested in here is just building a community that is just for vacation rental homes. And I think that's [a] great addition to St. George. But some of our vacation rental laws need to be adjusted a little bit, and that needs to be readdressed, and I was the one in favor of it. But I'm also the first to say that there's some really inappropriate things going on with our vacation rentals, and it greatly negatively impacted our housing situation here on Page.”

Short-term rentals are called STRs and mistakenly called VRBOs (Vacation Rentals by Owner), which is a company name like Airbnb. Airbnb and Expedia, which owns VRBO, lobbied the State Legislature and Ducey to strip cities of short-term rental controls. Only six states prohibit short-term rental regulations: Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

No new ideas for housing were offered at the debate, though Habitat for Humanity was mentioned and on the council’s agenda for the following night. At the June 12 council meeting, Councilor Brian Carey summarized what the partnership would look like.

“I asked for this to be put on the agenda after the EAB (Economic Advisory Board) meeting because it did sound like an excellent opportunity for us," said Carey, "as I understood this is a new approach for Habitat. I'm used to the one home at a time. I have friends that work with Habitat in other states and this was a new approach that seems to fit our community.

“This seems to be fitting yet another niche, which is using a housing program to break the cycle of poverty and not creating some type of a housing handcuff for people that they never get out of. it's my understanding that most of the wealth increase in this country over the past five years has been in equity in their homes, not that you can sell them or leave them but anyhow, on paper at least, those who are homeowners are wealthy and this seems to be what Habitat is going to try to tap into in a program that's sustainable, where a starter home is purchased with a small down payment, where there is a reasonable monthly payment, and after three years, the person in the housing can get a  return on that money that they've been paying rent in terms of equity and walk away with $ 10,000 a year up to a max of 10 years and Habitat purchases the housing back from them then does rehab so that it can then go back into the program.

“They're doing this in a neighborhood approach rather than one house here, one house there. It seemed like there was quite a few safeguards. One of our issues as a city has been dealing with the law. Arizona State law says that the city government is not allowed to willy-nilly give money away to people or resources away to people if it's not for the public interest. It's called the gift clause. The thing that this city can bring to this is we do have land and we can build infrastructure. So that's always been a big hurdle. How do you do that and then say truthfully that we're not trying to benefit this person or that developer or this kind of person? It appears that Habitat, working with city of Winslow I think, and perhaps the City of Flagstaff, has figured out a legal way to do that, at least in terms of the land, where the city actually never sells the land. There is a land trust that is created and that land trust leases the land to the folks. So a very small portion of the rental that a homeowner is paying is actually a lease payment back to the city. It's not a moneymaker but it does evidently check the boxes to make sure that we haven't given land away willy-nilly and violated the gift clause.”

Generally, debate candidates were civil and refrained from attacking each other and fellow citizens, though Roundtree did accuse Page-Lake Powell Chamber of Commerce of “courting future businesses and not addressing the needs of current businesses.” Roundtree and RD’s Drive-In owner and mayoral candidate Stephen Kidman are not current Chamber members.

The Chronicle spoke with Chamber Executive Director Judy Franz after the debate. “We have provided much, we provide to many, many businesses in this community, including Page Animal Hospital (owned by the Roundtrees) when they came back and set up again. I reached out and gave them a free membership for one year to thank them for coming back and taking care of the community. We got the word out on all of their current information. Anything that they were doing. We had it in our newsletter, we had it on the bulletin board. I had it on Page Americans (Facebook page). We do a fantastic job for the community. And I was disappointed with her attacks on the Chamber.”

The Chamber organizes and runs the candidate debates. The final debate is scheduled for 6 p.m. June 18.

Next week, the Chronicle will provide a voters’ guide summarizing all eight candidates for Page City Council.