It was June 1, 1999. I had a fresh master’s diploma in my pocket, about $62 to my name and wicked sunburn from a backpacking stint in Mexico with my boyfriend, Travis. It had been Trav’s idea for me to apply for a job in Telluride, a town he knew would quench his insatiable ski-thirst and a place I didn’t know (but would quickly discover) would become my creative Shangri-La. We drove down Main Street, ablaze in light like a twinkling toy village, and something in my soul caught fire. Trav and I wanted to stop for a celebratory beer that night, but even the $1 Schlitz at Fat Alley was too steep for us. The next day I’d start my job at the Sheridan Opera House, and the butterflies in my stomach exhilarated my senses. It was the beginning of it all, and it was beautiful.
Finding a place to live was possible, as the Daily Planet’s long-term rentals section listed plenty of options. Our first home was a 300-square-foot alley shack between Townsend and Davis. It had a dorm fridge and a two-burner hot plate that our landlord told us not to use, but we did anyway. In those days, ski bums lived on Colorado Avenue, and in the evenings after work, we’d hear music blasting from the “Reggae House” next door, and the lawns and porches up and down the street were crowded and alive. As I poured myself into creating a new children’s theater program, Trav began managing a ski shop and coaching for the Telluride Ski and Snowboard Club, where he’d eventually be the freestyle coach of a young Gus Kenworthy.
A few years passed. We got married. Post alley-shack, we served as live-in caretakers, a gig that allowed us to save every cent for a down payment on a house in Hillside that needed a lot of work, work we mostly did ourselves. Our kids were born. Trav started a business. And another. We relished in the challenges of raising babies while working multiple jobs in this tight-knit community that nurtured us and allowed us to thrive.
Our family left town for a sailing trip in 2016. Three years later, we returned to a Telluride that looked and felt profoundly different. It was busy and crowded all the time, as if festivals were happening every weekend, even when they weren’t. The spike in tourism wasn’t necessarily the issue (as an ardent traveler, I have always been heartily pro-tourism), it was a definitive shift in the community-driven culture of Telluride, and it seemed to be a loss of value in our locals that felt so off balance and disconcerting. Since then, and especially since the pandemic, this feeling has intensified dramatically. I always knew that Telluride couldn’t stay the same as I had discovered it, but what I never anticipated was that the core values that initially attracted me to this place — kindness, community-mindedness and the support of our invaluable local workforce — would be so diminished. Upon returning, we found locals to be stressed and disheartened; no one could seem to find a place to live. We became aware of the surge in the short-term rental (STR) market, with more than 300 added in the last five years alone. That’s the equivalent to four to six large, multi-story hotels thrust into our tiny box canyon. With that astronomical, unchecked growth, no wonder the town feels so squeezed and monopolized, no wonder so many locals are overwhelmed as they try to meet this unprecedented demand while struggling to find a place to live. With the gush of STRs, long-term housing has become increasingly more difficult to come by. Studies conducted by the Harvard Business Review and the Economic Policy Institute are just two examples of vast empirical research that shows a direct correlation between a rising STR market and decreased long-term and affordable housing. Capping the number of STRs is a measure that’s been adopted by communities across the country, and we have the opportunity to do so now in Telluride with the current citizen’s initiative that’s on the table, the one that is supported enthusiastically by so many locals and that some financially motivated entities are trying so desperately to thwart.
Will the STR cap solve our housing crisis? No. But it will be a solid first step in restoring the balance here, in demonstrating that we prioritize the welfare of our locals and value the long-term health of our community over easy short term gain. I liken the STR cap to another bold move in Telluride’s history: The creation of the Historic and Architectural Review Commission (HARC), formed in order to preserve the historic coherence of Telluride. Getting a project passed by HARC isn’t easy, and I’m grateful that it isn’t. Just as HARC is here to protect Telluride’s historic integrity, initiatives like the STR cap seek to protect Telluride’s cultural integrity, to protect the unique cultural climate that made this town so popular in the first place.
I often wonder if some of the people who moved here around the same time Trav and I did have forgotten how much we all needed an affordable place to live when we all rolled into town. Who would we be today if we hadn’t had that basic human need fulfilled? As Trav has noted, we arrived in Telluride as seeds that were given room and encouragement to grow. Friends, the time has come that we make room for more new seeds, to nurture them and allow them to thrive. I truly believe that the future of Telluride depends on it.