OGDEN — The Ogden City Council continues to mull over a mayor's office proposal to extend the city's Quality Neighborhoods Initiative.
But before the body votes on whether or not to continue with the program for the next five years — which also includes an obligatory approval of $5 million in city funding — some council members are vetting concerns they have with the proposition.
According to City Council documents, the Quality Neighborhoods program was first adopted in November 2015 as a way to coordinate various programs, strategies and funding sources to help stabilize and revitalize certain neighborhoods in the city. The program uses several funding sources, which include federal Community Development Block Grants, lease revenue from the Business Depot Ogden, plus state and other local funding sources.
The program aids neighborhoods adjacent to Ogden’s downtown area — most notably, the east-central neighborhood. The area has long been one of the city’s most economically distressed and has been a target for redevelopment for years.
Ogden Community Development Manager Ward Ogden said the initiative has been successful and has helped push positive change in several pockets of the city’s core. In the five years since Ogden first adopted the program, the city has completed $3.13 million worth of revitalization projects and used another $2.4 million to repay debts associated with the work. The projects undertaken by the city run the gamut, from the demolition of old, blighted buildings and rehabilitation of single-family homes to the construction of entirely new subdivisions.
But Council member Luis Lopez said he's concerned that increasing home prices are driving the housing options associated with the program out of reach for many Ogden residents.
According to assessed valuations for 2020 Weber County properties, median home values increased 11% last year, compared to 2019. The median value is the midpoint for Weber County home values, with half worth more than that and half worth less. And according to the Utah Association of Realtors, the average price of a sold home in Weber County increased a staggering 28% from January 2020 to January 2021, jumping from about $281,000 last year to $358,000 this year.
Ogden Community and Economic Development Director Tom Christopulos said the global housing market has indeed increased prices of homes associated with programs in the Quality Neighborhoods Initiative, but obviously, the city has extremely little control over that.
But Lopez questions the validity of the program if even most "middle class" Ogden residents can't afford homes associated with it.
"What I'm hearing is that the funding we are using here is being designated to build homes that are not affordable to people who don't make a lot of money," Lopez said, adding that he's seen the city advertise homes at around $400,000. "What I'm talking about is, could we be trying to do some kind of construction ... that (doesn't result) in homes that cost $400,000 but maybe $300,000? Something along those lines."
Christopulos said with construction costs what they are, the only way to do what Lopez suggests would be through direct subsidies, which would be extremely hard for the city to manage.
"We (initially) targeted them to bring them in at the ranges you're talking about," Christopulos said. "But the market forces are so strong. That's an economic problem and a supply problem, it's not a political problem we know how to deal with. There are things we can do about it, but right now with the marketplace where it is, it would require extraordinarily heavy subsidies, which is not a pragmatic solution in the current environment."
In a previous council discussion on the issue, Council member Rich Hyer raised concerns about the program and funding essentially being limited to one area of the city.
Ogden and Christopulos conceded Hyer's point that there is decline and deterioration that can be addressed all over the city, but said prioritizing the city’s core for revitalization should eventually help those areas as well. On Tuesday, Hyer said he understood that concept but noted it's a hard point to get across to his constituents who live on the northern end of the city and witness continued city-initiated redevelopment near the downtown.
"I get the reason they want to focus that money, it's just really hard to answer constituents," Hyer said. "Maybe what we've got to do a better job of is our messaging. Explaining why we're doing what we're doing."
Council Executive Director Janene Eller-Smith said the common refrain Hyer was referring to, where residents take issue with the city using "my tax dollars" on projects not near their neighborhoods, isn't exactly an apples-to-apples comparison when it comes to the Quality Neighborhoods Initiative.
The program takes in an annual $1 million city infusion, money that comes from the city's Business Depot Ogden lease fund, which isn't tax money. The city collects lease revenue from tenants operating out of the BDO business park, splitting the money 50-50 in a public-private partnership with the Salt Lake City-based Boyer Company. After expenses, the city takes in about $8 million per year there, a figure that doesn’t include property tax revenue.
The city is expected to vote on the Quality Neighborhoods five-year extension next Tuesday.