‘Affordable housing, we do not have enough,” proclaimed Fernie Quiroz of the Arizona Housing Development Corporation on Thursday night.
“… We have a lot of families that work hard and they can’t afford a home anymore. You’re looking at three-bedroom homes ranging from $250,000 to $300-plus. Even if they wanted to rent, when’s the last time you saw an apartment complex being built in Yuma? None. There’s availability of new vouchers to be able to go after in the city of Yuma but it’s so difficult because nonprofits like us — we can’t even afford the land now to be able to go after tax credits to build affordable homes.
“I could go on, but I need you. I need your voice. I need your activism.”
The call to action was made Thursday during a panel at Maxed Out: The Story of Affordable Housing in Yuma. Held at the Historic Yuma Theatre, people gathered to hear Yumans tell their stories on housing and leaders discuss the ever-concerning topic of affordable housing.
As a result of a partnership between the Yuma Sun, The Arizona Republic, the Arizona Community Foundation of Yuma, Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, NexGen Yuma and KAWC, the storytelling event balanced personal stories and experiences with numbers pertaining to the issue in Yuma.
“Arizona is facing one of the toughest housing markets in the country,” said Alison Cook-Davis, associate director for research at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy. “As Arizona has continued to grow, people have moved to the state and housing has become increasingly scarce. … Rental and home prices have seen double-digit increases over the past year, and families are struggling to find housing. By some estimates, Arizona is in need of 270,000 additional units to meet the demand for housing.”
Researcher Alison Cook-Davis of ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy presents findings that document housing challenges faced by Yuma County residents on Thursday, April 21, 2022, at “Maxed Out: The Story of Affordable Housing in Yuma” Storytellers event in downtown Yuma.
Andrea Whitsett, director of the Morrison Institute, explained that their organization has conducted research on housing thanks to a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation. Part of that research included the history of housing in six Arizona counties, including Yuma.
Whitsett provided a snapshot of Yuma’s story: first inhabited by the Quechan and Cocopah peoples, European settlers came to the region in 1540. Yuma would encounter the Mexican-American War and fully join the U.S. by 1854. Indigenous peoples, Spanish explorers, cowboys and people looking to profit from the Gold Rush would come to the Yuma Crossing. The Colorado River would bring plenty of prosperity to the region as well as destruction through flooding — which was common until the early 20th Century — and labor programs such as the Bracero Program in 1942 would bring a larger labor force to the region.
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“Today, Yuma remains a meeting place,” Whitsett said. “Its military, agricultural and pioneer history all center around the importance of the Colorado River, and migrants from across the U.S. and world still converge here to enjoy those natural resources, opportunities and heritage.”
Family histories and current housing challenges
Bruce Gwynn offered a closer look at how Yuma became what it is today, sharing the stories of Jose Maria Redondo, his great-great-grandfather and former mayor of Yuma responsible for its name change, and E.F. Sanguinetti, his grandfather who was involved in so much of Yuma’s development. The legacies of these figures remains — not just through Gwynn’s memory but throughout Yuma too. Sanguinetti’s home is preserved today as a museum and ruins from where Redondo lived can still be seen today.
“After he passed away, I think the treasure seekers went out there and dug holes in the foundations, etcetera,” Gwynn said. “Then the elements, whatever it was, the walls crumbled, and away it went. But it’s still there. You can go out there anytime you want and you can stand in amongst the ruins. The walls are only two, three feet high now, but you can look out across the valley, and you can see what he did with mules and Fresnos and plows and nothing mechanical.”
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Chris Wheeler, owner of Prison Hill Brewing Company, also shared his family history in Yuma, starting with his great-grandfather coming to the U.S. as a stowaway from Spain. From Florida to Mexico and finally Yuma, Wheeler’s family eventually found their home there, never having left the region since. Just last year, the house he lived in had to be leveled due to disrepair, but Wheeler saved a few of those bricks. And he credits his great-grandfather for what his story has come to be as the owner of a brewhouse.
“You’re hearing the stories about affordable housing and an often lack thereof,” he said. ‘I was lucky to have that. I’ve been super fortunate having a home and, you know, never really wanting for anything and it’s been amazing. But I will thank my great grandfather for doing what he did. If he hadn’t stopped here, none of this would have happened.”
A lot has changed since the 19th and 20th centuries when Wheeler and Gwynn’s ancestors established themselves in Yuma where building a home was easier.
Highlighting those differences, Edgar Olvera shared his own struggles now as a first-time homebuyer in Yuma today, noting first his childhood of moving every year with his family while his father served in the military.
Originally, Olvera started looking into buying a house in February 2021. COVID-19 was an ongoing issue, there were labor shortages and prices of goods were skyrocketing due to supply chain issues.
Yuma loan officer Edgar Olvera tells of the challenges he’s had buying his first home at “Maxed Out: The Story of Affordable Housing in Yuma” on Thursday, April 21, 2022, at the Historic Yuma Theatre.
“Anybody who was buying a house these past few years, you would know that you submit an offer and there’s 10 other offers on the table, whether it’s cash or over asking,” Olvera said. “… And it got so bad to the point where I was putting in offers, obviously getting beat out by all these other people, whether it was cash or whatever it may have been.”
Olvera didn’t have the time to keep looking at houses when he was always getting beat out — he ended up making offers on houses he inspected online, but in the end, it seemed best to construct a new house. He figured it would take six to eight months to complete, but the process has proven to be longer with the finish date being pushed back from November 2021 to December to January to April to Friday of this week and most recently, Wednesday of this coming week.
“If you guys want to know if I get my house or not, you can contact me next week to see if that’s the case,” he said.
Inequalities persist in home ownership
Olvera’s struggles to find his home aren’t unique, and the issues highlighted extend even further. Data from the Morrison Institute noted that the median price of housing in Yuma County has risen 22% from 2020 to 2021, from $175,000 to $214,000 and housing inequality persists, with Black residents making up the lowest percentage of homeowners at 38%.
“While twice as many White residents are homeowners, we also see lower levels of homeownership among American Indian and Latino residents compared to white residents,” Cook-Davis said. “And because such a large percentage of minority households are priced out of homeownership or face other additional barriers to owning a home, they are often disproportionately represented in the rental market.”
Cook-Davis stated that a third of Yuma County households rent and renters are also far more likely to be cost-burdened, which means they spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs.
“In Yuma County, 42% of renters are cost-burdened, whereas 23% of homeowners pay more than 30% of their income for housing and cost burdens have cascading effects,” she said. “… That means there’s less money to go for things like health care, insurance, nutritious food and other quality of life necessities. The state of the rental market in Yuma County becomes most evident in factoring in wages: the average renter wage in Yuma County is $13.11. The rent affordable at this wage is $682.”
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The data presented shows that the average fair market rate in Yuma County for a studio apartment is $655. For a one-bedroom, it’s $705, for a two-bedroom, it’s $927 and for a three-bedroom, it’s $1,321.
During a panel portion of the event, Tony Reyes, executive director for the Comité de Bien Estar and chair of the Yuma County Board of Supervisors, spoke on how South County is currently the main place where affordable housing is available.
Formed originally by a group of farmworkers in 1977, part of Comité’s work has been building housing units.
Julie Engel of the Greater Yuma Economic Development Council leads a discussion with Yuma leaders Tony Reyes, Fernie Quiroz and Greg LaVann during “Maxed Out: The Story of Affordable Housing in Yuma” on Thursday, April 21, 2022, at the Historic Yuma Theatre.
“We built 100 homes last year, we actually turned them over to the people and we have 350 some multifamily units,” he said. “We’re building 86 more right now, but we’re increasing the stock. We have 18 individual farmworker housing units spread across Yuma County, we have the largest nutrition program in the state of Arizona and we like to keep it that way.”
Having worked on the regulatory side as the former mayor of San Luis, Reyes also explained that whenever the government is bent on making an area middle class, changes like extra garages or bigger houses are taking people off the market. While it’s difficult to navigate those demands, he feels that South County is doing that well and serving as a counterbalance to Yuma’s issues by having houses that cost less than $200,000.
‘Yuma has a fantastic story … but our story needs to change’
Greg LaVann from the Greater Yuma Economic Development Corporation expressed that the overall issues in Yuma County must still be addressed in the interest of attracting and retaining talent.
“The biggest problem we have, as Bernie already mentioned, is that we haven’t built a multifamily Class A development over 30 years in Yuma…” LaVann said. “…we import a lot of talent because unfortunately, we’re not at the stage to grow our own. Those people come here looking to buy or own a property; they’re looking for opportunity to basically land softly at a rental property, and they’re forced into the outskirts of our community. They’re forced into a lot of the urban areas, which are not the best when it comes to actual housing and crime and so forth. And that really gives them a really poor impression about their first introduction to Yuma.
“Because of the fact that we haven’t built a housing development over 30 years, it also skews our rental rate market, and what that does, essentially makes it very difficult for new developers to come into our area and want to do classic housing.”
LaVann explained that the inability to retain talent is serious: if healthcare and public safety workers are struggling to live in Yuma, healthcare and public safety are compromised.
Two stories that LaVann shared also drove the point home that people won’t want to stay if housing is bad. The first story he shared was that of a family from Mexicali. Struggling to find a house, they eventually went with the only option available and within the first week of moving into the unit, somebody was shot and killed across the street.
The other story involved a woman moving here to help establish a new manufacturing company. She wanted to see the market and asked LaVann about apartments.
“I had to take her down to what we had, basically what we had to show, you know, Lothlorien, River Parks in those other areas — no offense, anybody in here who lives in those places — but reality is that she was appalled by the notion that that was the best we had to offer for our current housing,” he said. “She never came back, she left and never came back. And so those are the issues that we have to tackle because ultimately you can’t grow as a community if we don’t create a better living, workplace environment.”
“Yuma has a fantastic story,” said Julie Engel, CEO and president of the Greater Yuma Economic Development Corporation. “We’ve heard several of them tonight, but our story needs to change. When I moved here — and Greg’s a transplant as well — people were apologetic about Yuma, they would apologize, and I thought Yuma was so cool; there’s so much to do. And sometimes I think you do need an outside perspective to see all the wonderful things that are here, but we have to change our story. And we have to be Yumans and be very proud of that story, and I think we’re on the right track.”
Attendees for the event were able to share their thoughts and ideas in a reception afterward, but the dialogue is ongoing. To see more of the information presented by the Morrison Institute, visit https://morrisoninstitute.asu.edu/content/morrison-institute-housing-research.
Sisko J. Stargazer can be reached at 928-539-6849 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in the Yuma Sun. “Maxed Out!: The Story of Affordable Housing in Yuma” was the first of three such events planned by The Republic/azcentral.com around the state this year. The Republic/azcentral.com is partnering with local and statewide groups for the event series. In Yuma, that included the Yuma Sun, NPR affiliate KAWC, the Arizona Community Foundation-Yuma, NexGen Yuma Leadership Council and the Greater Yuma Economic Development Council. This event series is part of The Republic/azcentral’s coverage of housing insecurity, which is supported with a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation.
AUTHOR: Sisko J. Stargazer