Growing Pains for Affordable Housing at Norwood’s Cottonwood Creek Estates

small lawn at cottonwood creek estates

By Judy Muller | Norwood

Seventeen years ago, Bob Engel moved into one of the thirty homes that make up the Cottonwood Creek Estates community on the outskirts of Norwood. He was the second tenant to sign up for the newly constructed affordable housing development. Now, he has the distinction of being the tenant who has lived there the longest. His rent, back in 2000, was 759 dollars a month.

“It was a great deal,” says Engel. “It’s a four bedroom house with an attached garage. Where are you going to get that for even a thousand dollars?”

Now that his rent in fact has been raised to a thousand dollars by the new owner, Kurtex Property Management, Engel still thinks it’s a good deal. “I don’t have any complaints,” he said as he sat in his living room one evening, a room that reflected the lived-in atmosphere of a longtime resident, with antlers and art on the walls and a massive philodendron plant framing the window. “The only complaint I have is privacy,” he added, “We don’t have a fence.”

The “yards” around the 30 “estates” at Cottonwood Creek (where there are, oddly enough, no cottonwoods OR creek) elicit generally negative reviews by tenants, both present and past. The homes, lined up neatly along two blocks, are surrounded by gravel, rather than grass, and while there are aspens and firs planted around the homes, there are no fences, so neighbors stare directly across a field of gravel into the back windows of those behind them. “I’d like to have a yard, you know?” said Engel. “Once, the weeds in the gravel were so big, they were taking over. I just got mad one day, threw out some of the rocks, got a rototiller and planted grass.” He is proud of the result – a carpet-sized wedge of green grass next to the front porch. “That ‘lawn’,” he said, “is probably 14 years old. The new owners threatened to kill it.”

While Engel was reluctant to complain about the new owners, some former residents have not been so shy. Complaints about the new management, Kurtex, have been flying in local media, including an article in the Norwood Post (“Former Cottonwood Creek Tenants Sound Off”) and on the Telluride “Rants” Facebook page. Many of those complaints have been collected and publicized by Amber Riker, the former manager of Cottonwood Estates. Riker worked for the previous owner, a developer based in Florida, who initially financed the project in the late 90’s through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program. Riker says her former employer led her to believe that she would be kept on as manager, despite the change in ownership, continuing to live in one of the homes with her daughter at no cost. But on the day of the real estate closing, she says an official from Kurtex walked into the management office and asked, “Why are you here? Your replacement is in the street.” And so, she says, “they took my job, they took my house. They put a note on the door, saying ‘Amber no longer works here. These are the people who are taking over, have a nice day.’ And then came the notes that prices were going up.”

Kurtex owner Kurt Lochmiller says the company had nothing to do with Riker’s termination, adding that they even offered her an extra month in her house at no cost. He wanted a husband-wife team so that Kurtex could get a qualified maintenance person as part of the deal. “She (Riker) got mad, I guess, because she didn’t get the job.”

Kurtex is a Denver company with several other affordable housing properties. Owned by Lochmiller and operated by its Vice President, Cary Walko, the company had made what appears to be a savvy business deal; for just under a million dollars, they now owned 30 rental properties in a county where affordable housing is very, very scarce. And while they did not get the tax credit the previous owners did, they were able to legally raise the rents under the guidelines issued by the Colorado Housing Finance Authority, which oversees affordable housing in the state. “It’s a business,” Walko told the San Juan Independent in a recent phone interview, “and rents were grossly under scale. Based on CHFA guidelines, rents were about $1000 a month under the amount that should have been charged.” The previous owners had been charging rents suitable for studio or one-bedroom units, he said, not four-bedroom homes.

moving van at cottonwood creek estates

So tenants saw rents abruptly increase from around $800 a month to anywhere from $1000 to $1200 a month. Kurtex claims the company would be justified in raising the rent, eventually, to almost $2000 a month, based on Section 8 Housing Standards. Walko says these rents are still a great deal: “That same house in Telluride would go for $6,000 a month, ” adding, “Our whole business is low income. I would be breaking laws if I over-charged.” Kurtex also told residents that they would now pay for sewage, water, and garbage pickup –costs that used to be covered by the owners.

All of the homes in the project are restricted for households with incomes equal to or less than 50% of AMI, or area median income. That comes to about $38,400 for a family of four. Given those limits, most households with two income earners earn too much to qualify for rentals at Cottonwood Creek. The result: most homes are rented to people with very low incomes, including single-parent families and people with disabilities. More than half of the renters there hold Section 8 Rent Subsidy Vouchers.

Former manager Amber Riker believes Kurtex is playing with the math, in order to allow people to move in who would not pass muster as qualified tenants, such as several ski instructors who share a house. When questioned about this, Walko replied that those four young men were approved for a lease because they were unemployed at the time. “So, they don’t have any jobs and their income is zero,” explains Walko, “which qualifies them. The less you make, the more you qualify.” He admits that they now probably earn too much, collectively, to qualify, but once tenants are in, they are not evicted simply because they start to earn more. Walko denies that Kurtex is skirting the guidelines in order to make a profit or that they are unfeeling, absentee landlords. “I would say the previous owners are the unfeeling ones,” he told the SJI. “They just wanted the tax credit. They never visited the property.” He says he and Lochmiller make frequent trips to Norwood to visit with tenants and community members, and points out that the company donated the money for last year’s New Year’s Eve fireworks display in Norwood and for hats and t-shirts for next year’s high school football team.

“Before I got there, there was a lot of domestic violence going on, there was a lot of drugs. They called it ‘the ghetto in the meadow’ and ‘felony flats.’ My goal was to implement change without blowing things up.”Former Cottonwood Creek Estates Manager Amber Riker

Within days of that phone interview with Walko, he and Lochmiller did, in fact, pay a visit to Norwood. They came to welcome a new management team (husband and wife), the third team in a year, and to speak with town officials. They also agreed to a sit-down interview about some of the issues raised by former and present tenants, most of which focus on the more impersonal management style, in contrast with Amber Riker’s friendlier approach, such as “working with” tenants who needed a few more days to meet their monthly rent payments now and then. Current tenant Don Wainwright, who has lived in Cottonwood Creek with his wife and four children for more than a year, told us he misses the more “neighborly” approach. “You should be able to say, ‘I’ll be three days late’ without being slapped with a one hundred dollar penalty,” he said.

Lochmiller told the SJI that tenants have to understand that he is running a business. “We’re not the Salvation Army here. We’re a profit organization. Our business is to run low-income housing. Maybe this sounds harsh, but we’re not here for ‘touch-feely’. I don’t care about your life. You live here, we expect you to go by the rules and guidelines. You pay your rent on time and be responsible. I’m not here to babysit.”

Walko added: “The thing I always say to a tenant is, ‘Could you walk into Clark’s, get a thousand dollars worth of groceries, then say I’ll be back in a few weeks to pay you? No. So why is it okay with your rent?”

Former tenants who claim they were treated unjustly by Kurtex maintain special circumstances require a more compassionate approach. Christy Fornash lived at Cottonwood Creek with her ailing mother and her two young children. When her mother’s doctor said she had to move to a lower elevation for her health, Fornash asked Kurtex if she could be released from her lease agreement. At first, Fornash says, they agreed. So she looked for and found a rental in Denver, and put down an $1800 deposit. Then Kurtex changed its mind, she says, demanding the remaining rent and the deposit at Cottonwood Creek. They did offer an alternative: she could move to one of the low -income units owned by Kurtex in Denver, but at a cost: they would have to give up their cat and dog. Fornash says Kurtex finally withdrew its demand for full payment on her year-long lease, but she lost her deposit at Cottonwood Creek, as well as the deposit on the house in Denver, because of the time lapse. While hunting for affordable housing in Grand Junction and Montrose under Section 8 guidelines, the family had to live in hotels for a year, taking out a bank loan to cover the expense. They kept their belongings in a U-Haul, which cost $2100. She had to sell her car. The worst part, she says, was that her first grader lost a year of schooling. If Kurtex had been sympathetic and helpful, she says, instead of punitive, she could have moved to Denver without losing thousands of dollars.

Another former tenant, Sheila Stewart, is also critical of the new owners. She says her son, who was living in a house with his girlfriend and their child, was given an eviction notice after he was a day late with the rent. Stewart herself has since moved because of a pending divorce, but she says the whole community was upset about the firing of Amber Riker. During the three years of her management, says Stewart, she made everyone feel part of a community, throwing parties on holidays, giving out treats and decorations, throwing ice cream socials where neighbors could get to know one another, providing kids with backpacks at the beginning of the school year, putting out a monthly newsletter with birthday announcements, greeting newcomers with a gift basket of cleaning supplies and other items. “If we were a couple of days late with the rent, she would work with us,” says Stewart. “She knew which tenants were trouble, who she should evict and who she could work with.” But when Kurtex took over and hired a different manager, she says, that sense of community was lost. Even worse, she says, maintenance issues were not taken care of. “Our porch roof collapsed after a windstorm,” says Stewart, “ and it took them (Kurtex) three weeks to get to it. Meanwhile, we could hardly open the front door.” In addition to demanding that tenants pay for all utilities, Kurtex replaced individual garbage cans at each home with huge dumpsters that were placed behind houses, for tenants to share. “It smelled bad all the time,” says Stewart, “and the garbage was attracting wild animals.” The dumpsters have since been replaced with the individual cans.

Cottonwood Creek Estates sign with view of Lone Cone

Riker says she heard from one tenant recently who had promised to repair a hole in the wall of one room. She said she had trusted him to get around to it, since he was in the construction business and had bought the dry wall for the job. But the tenant told Riker that the new owners said the hole was justification to negate his lease and replace it with a month-to-month lease instead.

“…newsletters are great, but the maintenance wasn’t being done. We’d rather see safe housing than backpacks to the schoolchildren. Maybe that sounds harsh, but that’s not our business.”Kurtex owner Kurt Lochmiller

Most tenants who were willing to talk said they credited Riker with “cleaning up” the community in the three years she was there. “Before I got there,” she says, “there was a lot of domestic violence going on, there was a lot of drugs. They called it ‘the ghetto in the meadow’ and ‘felony flats.’ My goal was to implement change without blowing things up.”

She ended up evicting four tenants, for various violations of the lease agreement. One group of young men was using the entire house for a marijuana “grow,” another tenant was keeping too many dogs, “leaving them in their own filth, stuff like that,” and some tenants were using their homes for loud, drunken parties.

Bob Engel remembers those days. “This place is pretty quiet now. I’ve seen it at its worst, when the drunks lived in this neighborhood. I mean, they couldn’t even find their own home. They’re knocking on my door! I’d say, ‘Dude! You live across the street!’ “ He credits Riker with ousting the troublemakers and bringing some peace and unity to the neighborhood.

Since Kurtex has taken over, seven more tenants have been evicted, most for failure to pay their rents on time. Lochmiller says he, too, is interested in improving the development. “We have turned down a ton of people [seasonal workers] from Telski,” he said, “because what we want is families.” He says his company has already improved the homes, by doing maintenance on the furnaces and ordering the installation of hardwood floors in every house. They told the SJI they have plans to install fences for privacy.

“It’s a fine line here, when I come into these properties and try to clean them up and stabilize them,” says Lochmiller. “Everybody saw, gee, the nice little newsletters and all that stuff. Newsletters are great, but the maintenance wasn’t being done. We’d rather see safe housing than backpacks to the schoolchildren. Maybe that sounds harsh, but that’s not our business.” Riker, who is working on her master’s degree in management, says she doesn’t disagree with Lochmiller’s position that Cottonwood Creek Estates is, first and foremost, a business. But she adds, “I believe there is still a way to be profitable in business and do it correctly, ethically and have some kind of compassion for what you’re doing.”

“…being out around here is really out. There is a real shortage of places to move to.” Long-time resident Bob Engel

Perhaps the biggest change that might come about is the possibility that Kurtex might buy “raw water” taps from the City of Norwood at $2500 a tap, for a total of $75,000 for all 30 homes, with the aim of putting in lawns and removing all that gravel. That investment would help launch the town’s proposed “raw water” project and would make the “estates” much more attractive. But when pressed on whether Kurtex actually plans to go ahead with that investment, Lochmiller would not commit, saying, “We’re trying to figure out if that is good or bad. Will people really take care of yards?”

Meanwhile, long time resident Bob Engel continues to water his 8 by 6 foot ‘lawn,’ in flagrant violation of the rules. Not that he wants to wave a red flag to draw attention to himself. People are afraid to complain about anything, he says, “Because being out around here is really out. There is a real shortage of places to move to.”

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About the Author

Judy Muller

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Judy Muller, an Emmy, duPont-Columbia and Peabody Award-winning television correspondent, National Public Radio commentator, and professor at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Judy has long spent her summers in Norwood. Her most recent book is Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns.

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