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Our Opinion: Kicanas leads local drive on affordable housing ideas

Bishop Gerald Kicanas

Bishop Gerald Kicanas

Just two days after President Obama called the nation’s attention to Arizona’s housing crisis, a local group met to start a discussion on how to tackle the problem in Tucson.

Obama last week chose Arizona as the backdrop to unveil his housing policy. It wasn’t a surprising choice, as Arizona has become ground zero in the mortgage foreclosure crisis.

One study found that home prices in the Phoenix area tumbled 40 percent in a year, prompting investors to abandon their properties and leaving overextended homeowners to face foreclosure.

But housing problems existed in Arizona – and in Tucson – well before the current foreclosure crisis. And they will remain long after the housing market has bounced back.

That’s why Bishop Gerald Kicanas of the Catholic Diocese of Tucson invited Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup and Richard Elías, chairman of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, to help head a group taking a broader look at how to provide an adequate supply of safe and affordable housing in the Tucson area.

Kicanas, Walkup and Elías last week hosted a forum in which the first steps were taken to address local housing issues. A follow-up session will be held in April.

The goal of the program is not simply to have more people own homes, but to lay a foundation for sustainable home ownership. And if that is to happen, land use, transportation and other factors must be part of the discussion.

In many places where housing is more affordable, transportation costs are much higher – a connection not always taken into account. That leads to the phenomenon known as “drive until you qualify” in which people buy homes farther and farther from the city core because land costs – and home costs – decline.

The local housing forum will urge that zoning for affordable housing – including apartments and rental units – take into account the accessibility of mass transit. In that way, money saved on housing will not be gobbled up by higher commute costs.

A housing trust fund also is a critical component in an affordable housing plan. Such a fund is a dedicated source of revenue reserved solely for affordable homes. The funds usually are established at the state and local levels so they will not be encumbered by federal restrictions and can be used for local housing goals.

There is an Arizona Housing Trust Fund, and Tucson has one of its own, with developers contributing to it as a condition of rezoning or of other city action.

Affordable housing is essential to the long-term health and strength of a community. Good for Kicanas, who has stepped outside his traditional role as a clerical leader to help shape a discussion of this timely issue.

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