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Ask a room full of people if they want affordable housing in their community and everyone likely will raise a hand in the air.

The disagreements arise when it comes time to define what affordable housing entails.

Ellensburg has been on a hot streak of late in terms of affordable housing. HopeSource’s Spurling Court project is opening this month. Habitat for Humanity is eying a significant project in the community and a private developer expressed an interest in the city-owned lot currently housing the community garden on First Avenue and Pine Street.

On Tuesday the Ellensburg City Council discussed the private land owner’s proposal and its discussion likely reflected the broader community views on what type of affordable housing is desired, as well as disagreements over those views.

The community garden property has a lot going for it as a site for housing. It is near the downtown and stores and services a person requires. The city owns the land and is in the position to be a supportive partner for a private developer to meet a community need. In many ways, this is the perfect scenario for an affordable housing project.

But … there’s always a but.

First of all, it is useful to take a step back and reflect on how Ellensburg has been meeting increased housing demands for the past 15 to 20 years. It has been sprawling — northward primarily. In some ways, that’s not a big deal because the land was there and if what was once land used for rural/agricultural purposes could fetch a higher value for housing, that’s an exchange people will make.

There are consequences to that style of growth. Ellensburg has lost much of its walkability. Not that everyone walks everywhere in Ellensburg, but in the older neighborhoods it’s possible for kids to walk to school and adults to walk to the store or into town for dinner/drink/entertainment. If you’re living in the north end, you’re driving in.

Sprawl is not an environmentally friendly style of growth or efficient use of resources.

What is environmentally friendly and more efficient is higher-density housing. And if there is one spot that makes sense for density it would be a lot bordering the downtown core.

The top question that came out of Tuesday’s council meeting might be, how dense is too dense?

Is a three-story apartment building fine, but a four-story building is one floor too many? What if the project needs to be four stories to be financially feasible? Do we say that building height is a line we are not crossing?

And who is going to live there? Are we fine with affordable housing for families, but not so much for single people? Does the family preference actually reflect our community’s demographic? We want to support families, but we don’t require people to form family units.

This may be clich{span}é{/span}d, but many of us picture affordable housing going to a single parent working his or her tail off to keep a couple of kids in clothes and food who would greatly benefit from having housing that doesn’t take 50% of the paycheck each month. Are we OK with variations on that?

Regardless of whether this particular project advances, the conversation it sparks is fascinating and revealing of our individual perceptions of affordable housing.

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