By Allison Perry | Telluride
“When I moved to Telluride in 1987 everyone told me, ‘It will be easy to find a job, but good luck finding a place to live,’” San Miguel County Commissioner Joan May said in a recent interview. “Now, in 2015, the story is the same for newcomers for somewhat different reasons.”
May’s memory from over two decades ago also reflects the current state of the housing versus job market in Telluride, and despite the creation of affordable housing complexes beginning in the 1980s, such as Shandoka, the Meadows, Big Billie’s and Village Court Apartments, affordable rentals are still shockingly hard to come by. It’s a problem that primarily plagues those who earn wages and work in Telluride or Mountain Village year round.
Since the 1980s, according to May, about 1,200 units of employee housing have been built, mostly by local governments. However, despite the housing units that have been built, there remain critical housing shortages in Telluride, particularly for those whose income hovers places them in lower and middle class brackets.
While enormous mansions in Telluride and Mountain Village sit empty for months on end, affordable apartments remain scarce for the workforce in Telluride and Mountain Village. The waiting lists for affordable apartments in complexes devoted to providing cheaper units stretch on, with the only other option for renters either overpriced units in town, or having to share tight quarters with a number of roommates.
It’s even harder for dog owners, as many pet friendly units are dramatically overpriced and require large deposits, or are reserved for owners, rather than renters.
“Mountain Village had some examples of government/developer partnerships, and Lawson [Hill] had some owner-built houses,” she said, “but all the employee housing so far has been heavily dependent on government money, land and/or other subsidies. The deed restricted housing in our county includes a lot of things: VCA, the Meadows, Entrada, Gold Run, Wilkin Court, some lots in Aldasoro, San Bernardo, Lawson, Two Rivers, etc.
“The idea at the time, if I remember correctly, was that the deed restricted housing would be ‘entry level’ housing. People would buy a deed restricted home and then maybe move up into free market housing, freeing up the employee housing for the next batch of new employees.”
Where Did It All Go Wrong?
According to May, a combination of outside market forces and an enormous housing boom drove the value of property up to the point the prices became “completely out of reach for anyone who relies on an income in this region to pay a mortgage.”
What’s more, she says, is that the prices of homes did not increase, say, $10o,ooo per house, but more than quadrupled in price, going from, perhaps, $200,000 to upwards of a million. “[And] In Mountain Village,” May said, “the free market houses are by design completely out of reach for those who earn their living here.”
The result of the housing boom has been devastating for huge contingent of the workforce in Telluride, who must not only accept low wages, but also often juggle two or even three jobs at a time to make ends meet.
May attributes some of the problem to the fact that people who bought houses during the boom are now selling to second homeowners, vacationers and those who otherwise don’t rely on local wages to pay for housing.
Compounding the problem is the fact that, according to information from the U.S. Census provided by the Charture Institute in Wyoming, roughly 49 percent of houses in the county are considered primary residences, somewhere between 25 and 38 percent of houses in Mountain Village are occupied as a primary home, and only 44 percent of Telluride homes are occupied full time. (The information encompasses all residences, free market and deed restricted.)
Flipping this data on its head regarding just Telluride, for example, means that a staggering 56 percent of all residences in town are unoccupied for most of the year, while workers engage in a seemingly constant struggle to find suitable rentals in town, or are forced to live outside of town and commute.
Furthermore, according to the same Census data, a majority of occupied houses belong to people who are between the ages of 45 and 65, increasing the probability that those residents will remain in those homes as they near and cross over retirement age, further diminishing prospects for more homes opening up for the local workforce.
“The issue here, as far as housing is concerned, isn’t so much whether houses are occupied or vacant most of the year, it just means that those houses are not available for those who work here,” May said. “The same is true of many of the houses that are occupied year-round by people who either don’t have to work, don’t have to work here or are retired. So that puts a big strain on housing employees of the region.”
Angela Erickson, who has lived in Telluride for six years, is but one person dealing with the current housing crisis. Erickson currently works in the service industry and and earns roughly $1,700 – $1,960 per month before taxes, give or take. Erickson has moved several times while living in Telluride and now resides in a rental in Telluride’s Viking Lodge. While the location is as convenient as one could ask for, a short walk to the grocery store, work, the Gondola and main street, Erickson and her roommate pay $1,500 a month in rent for what she describes as a “glorified studio,” – less than 500 square feet. The apartment came with no storage space, doesn’t have separate rooms (merely a door between the living room and the bathroom and bedroom), and didn’t even come with an oven.
Erickson and her roommate take turns sleeping in the bedroom or the livingroom on either a couch or a padded alcove that abuts two windows.
“You’re not sleeping in when you sleep up here,” Erickson laughed. And despite her positive attitude – “Hey, it works” – it is not hard to tell that living in such close quarters and being relegated to the living room several nights a week is in no way a sustainable way to live longterm.
And, whereas Erickson and her roommate pays $1,500 per/month (not including bills) to share a small “one bedroom” in Telluride, a cursory comparison of rental prices using Craigslist reveals that she could get almost three times as much space if she lived in Ridgway, Montrose or Norwood.
For example, according to a Craigslist posting, for $1,300 a month ($200 less than Erickson’s current rent), she could rent a 1,700 square-foot four bedroom, two bathroom house complete with a garage and washer and dryer unit in the house, that would allow her dog even if he was not a certified service animal.
If Erickson became tired of sharing her pad with a roommate, she could rent a one bedroom, furnished apartment in Norwood with a large deck and barbecue, for $600 a month. And have it all to herself.
Finally, if bigger and more bustling Ridgway was more her cup of tea, she could move into a three bedroom, two bathroom 1,500 square-foot house with a large yard, a washer dryer, and street parking, just three blocks from downtown, for $1,000 per month. So why doesn’t everyone simply move out of Telluride and commute to work? A couple of hours on the road per day, and an earlier wake-up call can’t be that bad a trade-off for multiple bedrooms, more space inside and out, and perks like a washer and a dryer, or a grill, can it?
When asked if she would consider moving down valley, or perhaps to a more affordable apartment in Norwood or Rico, Erickson said that although she has considered moving down valley, a factor that has weighed against her doing it is, “The bus systems aren’t to reliable, when you don’t have a car or work nights at a restaurant.
“If the bus system ran like the gondola I would definitely be into commuting. Because even though the prices did go up in other places around Telluride, it is still way cheaper. The last bus leaves town around 5 p.m. and for those of us who work nights and don’t have a vehicle, moving out of town isn’t an option.”
For those who don’t have a car, then, commuting is out of the question. But even owning a vehicle and moving down valley to save in rent might not offset the high cost of living in the area. For example, vehicle owners who must drive into town for a full time job – twice daily, five days a week – must consider the high cost of gasoline and vehicle maintenance. The farther one lives from town, the cheaper the housing. Longer commutes mean more gas, and more stress on the car, and at some point the benefits of paying less rent begin to vanish as the cost of paying to commute rises, not to mention the increased stress of having to be on the road frequently, especially during winter storms.
Are There Any Solutions?
The question that has remained on the plates of various town and county official for years now, the perpetual thorn in the side of the local government, is what can be done about this housing shortage? Many solutions have been proposed, and discussed, but because of Telluride’s unique appeal to would-be wealthy landowners, most of those solutions are not feasible.
“To me, it’s about figuring out what the right balance is of vacation homes (or homes owned by those who don’t need to work) and homes for those who do rely on wages here to pay their mortgage or rent,” May said. “And then trying to figure out how to strike that balance.”
May explained that striking that balance is challenging not only because the government does not really have the ability to regulate when and for how long a residence is actually lived in, and even if this was possible, enforcement would not be. “[The] government can do things like regulate the size of homes or the size of lots, which might keep houses less expensive and more accessible to those who work here,” she says, but that does not solve the problem of housing that has already been established.
Finally, according to May, local governments could build or subsidize housing, however the public would have to agree to pay through taxes, likely in the form of an increased sales tax. The government can also include incentives for building more employee housing, or can attempt to partner with private or non-profit sectors to build housing. Attempts on behalf of the government, or private entities are rife with challenges such as finding suitable locations for housing units, assigning responsibility for building and determining just how much housing is really needed. Additionally, any construction projects are not only costly from a financial standpoint, but from a temporal standpoint as well as many take years to complete.
How long should Telluride’s workforce be required to wait for more affordable housing? Telluride certainly needs a solution to the affordable housing problem in the long term, but also in the short, and even immediate term. If the town can’t build housing for people who need it in town, what about making it easy, convenient and reliable to get to the aforementioned cheaper housing down valley, and in Rico or Norwood, for people who work days, weekends, and nights?
Perhaps the solution to the problem does not lie in creating more affordable housing in town, but in making it worth the while of Telluride and Mountain Village’s workforce to live outside of town and commute to work.
Stephanie Warner, who moved to Telluride in 2002 and has lived in both Norwood and Montrose (where she currently resides) believes that having to commute to work in Telluride is worth the lower prices and increased space.
Warner moved to Telluride in 2002 and lived in Lawson Hill and then the Village Court Apartments. In 2005 or 2006 she won the Mendota Affordable Housing lottery and was able to purchase an affordable unit for around $97,000. Her mortgage payments there were about $909 per month for a studio.
In 2008 Warner sold the Mendota unit and moved to Norwood where she bought a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house for only $10,000 more than the studio she had at Mendota. She says the fact that there was a bus route to and from Norwood was a big factor in her decision to move to Norwood.
Warner now lives in Montrose, where she moved in 2009 for a new job. She started with a three bedroom cottage downtown with a yard for $300 per month.
“My move to Montrose has been a life changer,” Warner said. “I thank my lucky stars daily. When I moved to Montrose in July 2009, I was able to get a better paying/rewarding job and vigorously save for retirement again. I eat fresher food (mostly locally grown) and can grow in my yard almost year round. I ride my bike, hike with my dogs, raft, paddle board, ski multiple hills, cross country ski, snowshoe, dirt bike, fish, easily drive or fly out of town.
“I bought a killer 1904 house in downtown Montrose with a garage, fenced in yard and three bedroom, one bathroom in 2011 for $116,500. Property taxes are cheap and my mortgage is $650 month.”
Although Warner only has to commute to Telluride once a week from Montrose for her current job, and her company pays for her car and mileage, she does believe that living in Montrose (or Norwood) and commuting to Telluride is well worth the effort. She also firmly believes public transportation is an essential piece of the affordable housing puzzle.
“I strongly believe that more daily RT rides down valley to Norwood would solve a lot of challenges. I used to ride that bus daily when I worked for the Town of Telluride and I think I paid one dollar each way,” she said. “I imagine even more could be done with social media to create easier ride/share opportunities as well. Years ago when I was looking to move out of Telluride (needed more space, garden, privacy), I looked at Ridgway, Rico and Norwood. Big motivator to choose Norwood was the bus line. There was also a county bus out of Ridgway that was appealing to me.”
May agrees that public transportation is a possible solution, at least in part, to the affordable housing crisis that shows no signs of going away any time soon.
“There is no doubt that we just won’t be able to meet the housing needs in the Telluride and Mountain Village area,” May said. “People will have to live elsewhere and commute. Not everyone wants to live in Telluride, anyway. Some people want more space, more quiet, or other qualities. So they may live down valley, in Norwood, Ridgway, Rico, or places along the way or further away. Thus we should have better mass transit. But again, government can’t provide that unless voters agree to pay more taxes to pay for it.”
While there seems to be little debate as to whether better public transit in the area would alleviate some of the challenges people find when looking for housing, the caveat lies in the fact that voters will have to approve more taxes in order to pay for it.
Currently the public transportation system is sparse at best, especially after budget cuts late last year forced the San Miguel County Commissioners to eliminate even more bus routes. The Galloping Goose, the local bus service, travels considerably less frequently to and from Norwood and Placerville than it does to and from Telluride, Mountain Village, Lawson and areas within and close to town.
Finding a bus ride from Telluride to Ridgway or Montrose is considerably more difficult, and the Road Runner Stage Lines is one of the only, if not the only option for someone who needs to travel down valley past Placerville and doesn’t have a vehicle. Road Runner only stops in Telluride, Ridgway and Montrose twice a day as well, once in the morning and once in the afternoon.
Montrose, which boasts by far the most affordable prices for housing, is also 65 miles from Telluride. An average Subaru in a popular year/make/model – say a 2000 Legacy Wagon – costs roughly $40 to fill (often more and sometimes less, depending on gas prices) and would need to be filled at least once a week. Thus, gas alone would cost a commuter around at least $120 per month, not counting any other trips that person needed to take in the car aside from getting to and from work.
Not everyone drives a Subaru either, and the cost of filling up a truck or an SUV can be far more expensive, sometimes even approaching $100 to fill the tank.
Add to gas prices the hassle of having to wake up earlier, arrive home later, and battle all kinds of nasty weather on the Dallas Divide in particular, which increases commute time in addition to adding stress, and driving to and from Montrose might be far more trouble than the saved money in the end is worth.
The bus is not much more affordable if you’re commuting from Telluride to Montrose: a daily roundtrip ticket is $22. Per week, a commuter would have to pay almost the same amount on bus fare, and in some cases more, as they would for gas. Ridgway is slightly better, at $12 per round trip fare, and as the commute gets less and less farther away from Telluride, bus prices on the Road Runner and the Galloping Goose drop dramatically.
The Catch-22, however, is, reliability and scheduling issue aside, the cheaper the bus gets, the closer one is to town, and the less dramatic the difference in housing prices are.
It might be well worth it for a single person, or a couple to move to Placerville to save a couple or a few hundred dollars a month, and take a short and cheap bus ride to and from Telluride to work, but a family looking for a house with multiple bedrooms, and a lot of space, who need to save far more money, would be far more able to do so in Montrose, Ridgway, Norwood or Rico, places that are either highly expensive to commute to and from in a car, highly inconvenient to commute to and from, or both.
The Galloping Goose to and from Norwood, for example, is only $4 total, however the bus leaves only twice in the morning at 6:55am and 7:30am weekdays and 7:30am weekends, arriving in Telluride at 8am, and 8:30 am respectively. Imagine a restaurant employee who works at a restaurant at 11am, or even not until 4pm for a dinner shift. Arriving in town at 8:30am and having to kill hours of idle time without spending money is relatively counterproductive and also extermely undesirable, not to mention the fact that there is no bus that departs Telluride for Norwood later than 5:35pm.
As Erickson pointed out earlier, restaurant employees would have a nearly impossible time trying to live somewhere like Norwood and still work their jobs, despite the fact there is a bus that runs there.
Complicating matters more is the fact that housing in Ilium, Placerville and Sawpit, somewhat more affordable locations that are far closer to Telluride, and receive somewhat more frequent bus service, is very scarce.
And while May states “Our priority has to be finding the balance of vacation homes and employee homes to provide for a healthy community and economy,” it seems clear, especially if we look at Erickson and Warner’s stories not as anomalies, but as representative of greater community needs, that better and more plentiful public transit options could improve the living situation for members of the workforce, even if they don’t remedy it altogether.
To that end, May says “We are trying very hard to get some conversations going about a Regional Transit Authority, which would address greater mass transit needs.”
The public will have an opportunity before and during the next election to be a part of this conversation and the solution when, according to May, the county is planning on having a ballot question in November to ask voters if they want to fund enough transit to keep the current level of Norwood, Lawson, and Down Valley transit going.