BISBEE — As the mayor of Bisbee, David Smith often deals with critical issues for the residents and affordable housing for low income families, the elderly, the disabled and those in need of assisted living is one he and the members of the city council would like to get off the to–do list.
In this his second term as mayor, the 72–year–old hopes to move forward with the scoping of a new, multi–use housing development to include affordable homes and apartments on an eight-acre parcel owned by the city in the San Jose District in partnership with Habitat for Humanity and Cochise County.
Herald/Review: Affordable housing is a need, but just what can the city do meet that need?
David Smith: The city has the potential to provide vacant land for housing sites as well as reducing fees associated with development and construction. It is often government that discusses the need for affordable housing, yet does nothing to solve the equation. On strictly a monetary level, affordable housing yields increased population, equaling more revenue in the form of sales tax, property tax and state shared revenue. On a humanitarian level, government needs help to provide opportunities for people to enjoy the safety and comfort of shelter.
HR: There seems to be a number of vacant/abandoned homes around the city’s boroughs. Can anything be done to make them habitable at a low monthly cost or are most just too far gone to renovate?
DS: The city has identified a number of vacant and dilapidated homes within all three of our Wards. Unlike some eastern states, Arizona has very strict property rights laws. While that is sometimes good for the owner, they prevent the city from acquiring the property and rehabilitating or removing the structures. In some cases, the true owner has inherited the home and doesn’t even know where Bisbee is located. The home sits and literally rots, becomes a haven for rodents and finally collapses. Certain options having to do with health and safety are available, however, after legal proceedings the city must pay to have the structure removed and record a lien on the property for financial recovery. In many cases the remaining land value is less than the lien amount. The city simply doesn’t have the funding capability for this activity in earnest.
HR: What price range is considered affordable housing?
DS: Affordable housing is usually deemed to be housing that is no more than 30 percent of a person’s or family’s gross income. Statistically, the median per capita income in Bisbee is $22,750 and household income is $35,045. This translates to a an “affordable” monthly house payment of $569 and $876 respectively. Unfortunately, Bisbee has a “below poverty” population of over 26 percent, meaning that over 26 percent of our citizens have an annual income of less than 50 percent of the median income. This translates to a monthly income of less than $948 individually and $1,360 for a family. This demonstrates the importance of programs such as Habitat for Humanity and similar projects, in which homes are sold for the actual cost of construction at a little to no interest rate.
HR: At the recent city meeting on affordable housing, there was a collective gasp at a $600,000 price tag on a condo in a northern Arizona city. Even $100,000 seemed to be out of reach of most people in attendance, especially those on minimum wage.
DS: As previously indicated, the city can provide certain incentives for private and non-profit groups to create projects. Cities, however, are not banks or construction companies and can only help by keeping the problem in the forefront and providing guidance and assistance where possible.
HR: Would Housing and Urban Development (HUD) help in building new low cost homes and apartments?
DS: HUD and other agencies have programs periodically available that provide tax benefit allowances to private and non-profits for this purpose. That funding varies from federal and state administration to administration. It often has little to do with political parties, but rather political priorities.
HR: What pots of money are out there that Bisbee could tap into to tackle the problem?
DS: There are no pots of money identified at this time. The last opportunity was under a prior mayor and the funding parties ceased their activities, citing malice and disrespect. Unfortunately, if a city is deemed “business unfriendly,” only time can rebuild the required trust needed for joint projects.
HR: Are you anywhere near coming up with a timeline for the proposal to use city land behind Safeway as a multi-use development?
DS: The City Council has given a “green light” on exploring the possibility of land donation and I will be working with the city manager, county and development groups in the near future to potentially move forward.
HR: Tell us a bit about yourself.
DS: My wife Linda and I moved to Bisbee 13 years ago and lived first in Old Bisbee, then moved to the 1908 surgeon’s mansion in the Warren District. We have two children and five grandchildren.
I served in the Marine Corps Reserve for six years and we settled in Tucson. I was a member of the Tucson Police Department for 14 years, 12 of which were as a detective in the Bomb Squad, Arson, Homicide Division.
I am the CEO of Associated Fire Consultants, Inc., a specialized firm of professional fire investigators offering a variety of services dealing with fire and explosion origin and cause including, fire/explosion scene investigation, after the fact consultation and litigation support.
I have also served as a member of the City Council, the Bisbee Council on Arts and Humanities and the Cochise College Foundation Board.