EDITORIAL: How Bad It COULD Be, Part One

Local governments have historically regulated residential development undertaken by the private sector. A shift occurs when the market is not providing housing affordable for local residents, with towns and counties becoming directly involved in development…

— 2016 Gunnison Valley Housing Needs Assessment

I have a favorite response, when a friend or acquaintance asks: “So how’s it going?”

“Pretty good… considering.” That’s my reply.

Sometimes they just smile and nod, but more often, they will ask, “Considering… what?”

That, of course, sets up my punch line: “Considering how bad it could be going, it’s going pretty good.”

This little joke comes to mind this morning — as I write yet another editorial about our local (and national) housing crisis — because, as badly as things are going for Pagosa Springs, it could be a lot worse.

I’ve been participating with a small task force of local leaders looking into the future of housing in Archuleta County. The future is looking rather bleak, at the moment, for certain demographic sectors of our community. Mainly, the future is looking rather bleak for our working class — a sector that is slowly disappearing, according to certain economic indicators.

My assignment for this week’s task force meeting is to bring forward a report on what is happening in a couple of other Colorado communities, also struggling with their own, very similar, housing crises. Some of those communities have been working on this problem for a couple of decades — maybe even longer — and still haven’t solved the problem. Have we seen any solutions? I mean… like, real solutions?

Today, we’ll take a look at the Gunnison Valley. If the housing situation is looking bleak here in Archuleta County… well, it could always be worse.

Gunnison County stretches across 3,260 square miles — more than twice the size of Archuleta County — and includes the towns of Gunnison, Crested Butte, and Mt. Crested Butte, plus a few smaller towns, like Marble and Pitkin. Despite the county’s physical size, its population is only slightly larger than ours: about 16,000. The valley was originally home to two Ute Indian tribes, but the native inhabitants were gradually displaced during the 1860s and 1870s by white miners and ranchers.

There’s now another group being slowly displaced.  The working class.

The Gunnison Valley’s local governments created a “Regional Housing Authority” by intergovernmental agreement in 2012, and one year ago — November 2016 — a team of consultants from Colorado and California delivered a ‘Housing Needs Assessment’ to the valley’s community leaders. The 139-page study (which you can download here) didn’t have a lot of good news to report.  For one thing, the study noted that a rather ridiculous household income is needed to purchase a “median priced home” in the Gunnison Valley…

“On average in the Gunnison Valley, an income of over $155,000 is needed to afford the median home price of $635,000, which is equivalent to over 280% AMI [Area Median Income]…

… this, in a tourism-driven community where the typical hospitality-industry wage is around $17,000 a year.

But the report did mention some “Significant Successes.”

To wit:

“Currently, 443 homes in the Gunnison Valley are restricted through some type of income, employment and/or residency requirements, which equates to just over 7% of all occupied housing units.”

Of these deed restricted units, the majority (71%) of units in the more expensive North Valley do not have income restrictions — only residency or employment restrictions.  That’s something of a problem, apparently.

Says the report:

“Without income targets, applicants with higher incomes tend to be disproportionately served. More focus on serving households earning 60% to 100% AMI [Area Median Income] is warranted.”

The consultants found that a large majority of Gunnison Valley residents feel the availability of affordable workforce housing is “a serious or critical problem.”

“Residents are having increased difficulty finding housing. About one-fourth of all households in the Valley are cost burdened by their housing payment and many homes are in fair or poor condition. Other problems include residents being forced to move, inability to live where desired, difficulty obtaining mortgages (particularly for condominiums), some overcrowding and unique challenges experienced by residents with special needs…

“Affordability is more acute in the North Valley as measured by the percentage of households that are cost burdened by high housing payments relative to income. Yet, because of its larger population, there are more cost-burdened households in the South Valley…

“The condition of homes is worse in the South Valley with nearly one-third of residents rating their homes as being in ‘fair’ or ‘poor’ condition…”

One advantage that the Gunnison Valley has over Archuleta County: the community has a locally-supported housing authority with a staff of three paid employees. (That team was planning to ask county voters for a $900,000 tax increase on the November ballot… but the proposal was nixed by the Gunnison County BOCC, and is not on the ballot this year.)

One advantage Archuleta County has over the Gunnison Valley, at the moment: you need an annual household income of only about $85,000 to afford our median-priced home (which runs about $349,500, according to zillow.com)…

… in our own tourism-driven community where the typical hospitality-industry wage is around $17,000 a year. Maybe things aren’t so bad, after all?  Considering?

The other side of the “affordability issue,” however, is the “availability issue.”

If a working class family is bringing in, say, $29,000 a year (before taxes) and they don’t have any childcare costs or student loans or big medical bills or vehicle repairs or credit issues — they might be able to qualify for a mortgage on a $100,000 house.

How many of those do we have on the market?

According to a search on the Pagosa Springs Multiple Listing Service, on November 4, 2017: zero.

One more interesting detail from the Gunnison Valley Housing Needs Assessment. (At least, I thought it was interesting.)

“Respondents that are planning to move were asked to select the top three types of homes they would prefer. As shown below:

“Single-family homes were selected as the first-choice home by 77% of respondents. Tiny homes followed a distant second, with only 9% of respondents choosing this as their first-choice home.

“Combining the top three selections by all respondents shows that single family homes are preferred by the majority (88%), followed by townhomes (55%), tiny homes (36%), duplexes (35%), and condominiums (33%). When planning for the development of higher density housing, townhomes are clearly preferred over condominiums.

Well, what say we do a bit of serious analysis on those numbers?

Read Part Two…

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.