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1ON1 with Scottsdale Councilwoman Linda Milhaven on the ins and outs of the multifamily ‘pipeline’

Photo of Linda Milhaven
Scottsdale Councilwoman Linda Milhaven at City Hall, 3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd. (Photos: Arianna Grainey/DigitalFreePress.com)

Tenured Scottsdale councilwoman separates fact from fiction

By Terrance Thornton | Digital Free Press

Concise news reporting and writing requires only the most germane facts and source commentary makes it into the final product presented to the general public in The Scottsdale Daily Beat at arizonadigitalfreepress.com.

Such was the case in the story, “Political fervor around Scottsdale housing construction ‘pipeline’ clouds reality of marketplace needs.”

Scottsdale Councilwoman Linda Milhaven offered the Arizona Digital Free Press comment to provide perspective to the report on what is going on in the local debate circling around how many multifamily units are too many in Scottsdale.

1ON1 with Scottsdale Councilwoman Linda Milhaven

•The number of multifamily units to be built with municipal bounds has become a talking point on the local campaign trail. Can you tell me your perspective on what the numbers of units to be built means to the local economy?

Fear mongering fueled by misinformation and hyperbole has taken center stage in our community dialogue and campaigns for City Council. Multifamily housing projects have become the bogey man with expressions like “out of control overdevelopment,” “too many high rises” or a cry to avoid the “urbanization” of our city. Instead, we should be afraid of stalling our growth, or, worse yet, going backwards and losing tax revenues that sustain our quality of life.

Our population growth has already slowed and we are growing more slowly than the region. Our share of state tax revenues is determined by our share of the state’s population. As the rest of the state grows more quickly, we receive a smaller share of state tax revenues. If we grow more slowly, we will be going backwards and our local economy will stagnate, tax revenues will decline further, and ultimately city services may be eliminated or reduced.

In addition, the citizen approved General Plan recognizes that our population will continue to grow as we reach build out and redevelop the older parts of our community. Population growth is constrained by the number of housing units available. If we halt creating new housing, our economy fails to grow, we stagnate and our economic strength is compromised.

•How about property values?
Our property values are a function of the quality of our community. That includes safety, physical beauty, cleanliness, the services provided both by local businesses and the city as well as our tax rates. Failing to add more housing options slows our growth and makes it harder for businesses to hire workers and be successful — both threaten our tax revenues and our ability to sustain the quality of our community. In short, failing to add multifamily projects threatens our property values.

•The brand of Scottsdale tourism?
Some claim that development threatens our tourism industry. This is more fear mongering. Our historic downtown is protected and is not threatened by development but other parts of our downtown are in dire need of investment.

Our tourism community did a study a few years back called Downtown 2.0. The study looked at our downtown and made recommendations to make downtown more attractive to visitors. Adding more housing units was one of its recommendations. Given the limited land downtown, adding height is the only way to add enough units to achieve the goal of creating vibrancy and adding more customers to support local business. The Waterfront Towers is a gem and a good example of this. It is beautiful, has brought people in to live downtown and supports the businesses around it. New development will mirror this success.

It isn’t clear exactly how folks think our brand is threatened. Looking at our visitors’ bureau website, they define our brand and promote Scottsdale by highlighting outdoor adventures, dining, night life, events, arts and culture, golf, shopping and downtown. Adding residential uses to existing commercial parcels does not threaten any of these but will make our downtown more attractive to visitors.

•As an elected leader, how are you helping to guide development responsibly from the local dais?
When new projects come forward the hard work starts long before projects get to a City Council meeting. The city of Scottsdale has a rigorous process for all project requests that includes staff review, development standards, design guidelines, public notification and outreach and public hearings. It often takes a year or more, and millions of dollars, for a project to work its way through the process and typically there are many changes along the way.

As a councilmember, I get involved early to review the project and share comments and concerns and to make suggestions. I attend open house meetings to hear what folks are saying and to discuss the project with residents. Only the best projects make it through the process and proceed to City Council.
If a developer learns along the way that they don’t have support for their project from City Council, they do not bring it forward. They will not waste their time and money. My role is to ensure staff is doing their job upholding the high standards of the city, attend public meetings and listen to resident concerns, consider the benefit of the project to the city and provide feedback to developers on their projects.

•Are multifamily projects bad for Scottsdale?
Robust communities are a balance of many factors and adding more housing units is important to maintaining that balance. We need a variety of housing options at a variety of price points. We need housing so our children can build lives in their hometown, so families can prosper, so seniors can stay in the community they called home all their lives and so people who work in the community serving us can live here. I lived in an apartment as a young professional. Most everyone I know has lived in an apartment at some point in their lives. It is an important housing option.

Businesses are also important to a robust community. Businesses provide services, jobs and precious tax revenues. However, business owners tell us their success is challenged by the difficulty to recruit and retain talent. Rather than travel to Scottsdale to work, folks prefer to work closer to home. The city is experiencing the same challenges filling critical positions. A lack of housing and skyrocketing costs contribute to this challenge.

Some think we have overbuilt multifamily housing but the census tells us rentals comprise a smaller share of our total housing units than most other cities in the region. Vacancies are virtually nonexistent. We do not have an adequate housing supply. We should keep in mind that multifamily housing makes more efficient use of precious resources, like water. Seventy percent of the water used at a single family home is used outside, watering landscaping and filling pools. Ninety percent of the water used indoors is reclaimed and recycled. In short, multifamily housing units use less water and recycle more of what they do use.

In addition, multifamily housing projects create fewer car trips than other similarly sized potential uses, like retail or office. Consider an office with a few employees and clients coming in and out all day. Consider how many customers a retail store would need to be sustainable. Now, consider an apartment with one or two people who may or may not go to work every day. Traffic experts tell us residential uses create fewer car trips than office or retail uses. Certainly, a multifamily project would create more car trips than a dead or dying retail center, a vacant building or a vacant lot, but I don’t think anyone would advocate for these.

Adding new supply will impact housing costs. As we add new units, yesterday’s new units age and the added supply will put downward pressure on rents in older units. I imagine there will always be a premium to be paid to live in Scottsdale, but this added supply will make the cost of housing more reasonable.

It is also important to be mindful about where these projects are located. New multifamily rezoning requests are asking to allow residential uses on existing commercial parcels where only office and/or retail uses are allowed. Many include a mix of retail and residential uses. Most are replacing vacant lots, vacant buildings or tired, old buildings. The new residents support surrounding businesses by providing customers and workers. All key to a robust economy.

Our lack of housing threatens our economic sustainability, will erode our tax revenues and may ultimately compromise the quality of the services and amenities that our residents enjoy. Multifamily housing is one solution to sustaining our quality of life.

•For residents who might be hearing about these numbers, what do you think they should know about the reality of the situation?

Capitalism still works. Investors are responding to market demands and will only build multifamily housing projects as long as there is demand for them. Investors will watch vacancy rates and rents and as demand wanes and prices soften investment will slow. There has been a lot of debate about how many projects are in the pipeline but some of these projects may never be built. We should be flexible, watch the market and make case-by-case decisions based on current conditions the needs of the community. Today, we need more housing to sustain our community.

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