More local housing discussion

First, we should say thanks to the volunteers who showed up and spent a long night putting out a big fire in Mt. Crested Butte. While the local high school kids were up all night attending prom and getting wet with a pool jump, some local adults were getting wet in the wee hours dousing big flames. One guy did both—high school senior Derek Shomler left prom just after midnight when he got the page and helped on the fire. Thanks to Derek and all the local volunteers. Much appreciation goes your way for your commitment.

Second, let’s send some good energy to our friends and their loved ones who are dealing with the aftermath of a significant earthquake in Nepal. There is a connection between mountain people and our soul mates in the Himalaya could use some help from their brothers and sisters in the Rocky Mountains.

Third, let’s address another issue being talked about on the streets, in the offices, in the bars and on Facebook: the local housing dilemma in Crested Butte.

Housing crunches come and go in the community. When the real estate market heats up, inventory shrinks as some homeowners decide to sell. They stop renting a place to fix it up for prospective buyers and this causes a squeeze. But this one feels different. It isn’t just affecting the blue-collar ski bum/service worker types. Professionals and their families are feeling the crunch. It is darn difficult for anyone to get a place.

Adam Broderick’s piece in last week’s paper apparently struck a loud chord. It has sparked conversations across the valley. Most of the feedback has been positive and people were glad that an issue that really affects almost everyone in some way was put in the spotlight.

Some longer-time locals have told me they feel there is too much of an “entitlement” attitude by a group of people who feel they for some reason deserve to live in the ten square blocks that is Crested Butte proper. There is some of that “Crestitude” out there and I’ve always chaffed at that idea. I didn’t get that vibe from Adam’s piece.

No one deserves a low-cost house in Crested Butte. I’ve always felt that you “live in Crested Butte” if you own or rent north of Round Mountain. And there comes a time when sacrifices—maybe it’s in recreation time, vacation choices, living space or bank account—have to be made if you honestly want to sink in deeper roots than being a seasonal ski or summer worker with four roommates.

For as long as I’ve been here, when it gets to be time to get serious with, say, a family instead of bar buddies, those with medium incomes usually start looking at the surrounding housing pods near Crested Butte. It is simply a free-market economic reality that it is a lot cheaper to own a house in Crested Butte South than on Treasury Hill or Whiterock.

But the wage-to-real estate price equation is waaaay out of whack right now. No matter how hard you work or how much you sacrifice, chances are a waitress can’t make enough to afford a million-dollar fixer-upper on Sopris. But I see more wealthier people buying and moving here in large part to put their kids in a good school and raise them in a great small town. While that takes away inventory from one segment of the community, it broadens the community with families actually living here, and that is a good thing.

The focus in times like these should not be on giving a house to someone but on figuring out opportunities to help bridge the wage-to-real estate price gap. Because when you start to price out the blue-collar workers no matter how many sacrifices they are willing to make, you start losing the community’s soul. That should be a general concern of the overall community since it will impact the future. As pointed out by Adam with just one example, if no young blue collar workers live here, who will engage the tourists with a young, local feel and convey the friendliness and vibe that Crested Butte is known for? And if we lose that, we become like any other resort town with the workers commuting from towns 30 or 90 minutes away.

Despite some of the grumbling I’ve heard this week, the local governments, particularly Crested Butte, are doing concrete things for affordable housing. There’s no magic wand that can make things better in a split second, but good steps are in the works.

Anthracite Place is a rental complex that will cater to singles, couples and maybe a few small families. It’s a good project (at a bad location, in my opinion, at Sixth and Belleview) but it starts to address some legitimate rental needs.

The town has gathered more than a half million dollars to start putting in infrastructure on blocks 79 and 80 in Crested Butte this summer. Some of that came from the joint Crested Butte-Mt. Crested Butte Whatever USA money. Those blocks are designated for deed-restricted affordable housing. Currently, single-family homes, duplexes and triplexes are supposed to go there. The town staff and council will this fall discuss the qualifications of who can get in. Maybe there should be a new conversation about the type of housing that can be put there. Perhaps home rentals accommodating families should be included.

The town has regulations for accessory dwellings designating them for long-term rentals. The town staff keeps a close eye on those units and there is about an 85 percent known compliance rate. That’s pretty good for anything.

The county has participated in affordable housing projects, the Gunnison Valley Regional Housing Foundation is working on all fronts, and Mt. Crested Butte has some designated areas and deed-restricted units for workforce housing.

Here’s an out-of-the-box idea (or a literal in-the-box idea): Google “shipping container homes.” There are some pretty sweet units renovated from what is normally an industrial crate. Take that template with the small home movement or pre-fab modulars and find a location for a village of the affordable units. Let them be free market. Maybe consider carving out space in, say, a new annexation where storage units for the toys could be placed on town property. It would be unique, fun and funky. Sort of like Crested Butte.

Regulating VRBOs might have some impact but not as much as some are saying. VRBO actually helps some locals who live here be able to stay here. And I doubt that if the owner of a $2 million home is prohibited from short-term renting the property, he’ll rent it to five guys out of college who want to spend a year in Crested Butte.

Those in need who have some money saved might want to pool their resources and develop some affordable free market housing for themselves. There is probably cheap(er) land in Crested Butte South or Irwin for example that helps make it viable. But understand that it is almost always a stretch for any first-time home-buyer to take that ownership step. But if that is what you want—then look for creative ways to do it.

The other option is to go find another place that still is like the Crested Butte you envision. For a person in their 20s looking for a mountain town to settle down, there are probably a few cool, cheap places out there somewhere. Go find it before the masses do. Buy something. Then don’t tell too many other people about it.

Back to the volunteers who fought that fire. While I was chatting with some of the volunteers at the scene Sunday morning, housing came up. Only ten Crested Butte volunteers responded to the fire right away. The volunteer numbers are shrinking as people move away or don’t have the flexibility to leave their jobs when there is a call. Some of the officers are worried about where they will live in this end of the valley as the squeeze gets tighter. And these are the people you not only want but need living in the community.

Last summer there were “Help Wanted” signs in many of the business windows. Losing people who mix the drinks, cook the meals, trim the gardens or run the chairlifts truly is a detriment to the future of the overall community. That’s why it matters to find opportunities to keep people living here.

But losing the firefighters, EMTs, teachers, or plow drivers is a real, serious consequence to the community. No one is “entitled” to live here. But providing opportunities for blue collars to stay here is a legitimate discussion for the community in general and the councils and government boards in particular.

—Mark Reaman

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