As another school year started last week, Ridgway Elementary School Principal Trish Greenwood was pleased to welcome new teachers to her staff, but discouraged as they arrived in town with little to no options for local housing. The small, mountain town experienced some of its highest real estate prices on record this past summer, while affordable homes and long-term rentals continued to be elusive for teachers and others who work for Ridgway’s employers.
“It’s especially difficult for new hires. Families relocating here generally want to buy a home, but our young teachers want to rent,” Greenwood said. “There are so few rentals. I send out emails, and go to the newspaper and Craigslist, and there’s absolutely nothing out there. People could be looking every week and maybe there is one. It’s extremely difficult to rearrange your life to move here and you can’t find housing.”
The housing and rental shortage also affects those who already live in the surrounding area, but must move when their leases expire and are not renewed. Finding affordable housing even in the larger city of Montrose also can be very difficult.
“I remember one of my teachers saying that she has moved all around the country for work, and has never seen a housing market like this — never this difficult. I had one teacher living in Placerville, who had a lot of time to look before her lease was up, but she had two dogs, and it was a really stressful time for her,” Greenwood recalled.
In addition, district enrollment is affected by the affordable housing and long-term rental shortages as students’ families have issues finding places to live. The principal said she gets inquiries from families who want to transfer to the school, but cannot find a house under $400,000.
Ridgway Realtor Charles Mueller agreed. “The school district and all the restaurants have been significantly impacted by a lack of (housing) supply. Many employees commute from Montrose, Delta, Olathe, etc. During the decade after the great recession, we put very little new housing on the ground, while the population continued to grow. Now we are feeling the crunch,” Mueller said.
That could change before next school year begins. At least two high-density residential projects with low-square-footage dwellings have been making their ways through the town’s approval process over the past year, and may be ready to break ground next spring.
“There are several projects in the planning stages, that may take the upward price pressure off for a while. Collectively, I count 63 units, which may happen in the near future. As a percentage of our total market, that is pretty significant,” Mueller explained.
Last week, the Ridgway Planning Commission approved the sketch plan for a development called Vista Park Commons, an update of The Village at Ridgway plan submitted in January. The proposal from Joe Nelson and Rob Hunter is to build 19 single-family, detached small homes and six studio/duplexes on 7.5 acres below the Vista Terrace subdivision across U.S. Highway 550 from Ridgway’s town center.
The property, north of Trail Town, is part of a larger parcel that was approved for commercial development 26 years ago, but is still only 40 percent complete. The residential proposal is to build in three phases with the first nine homes available for occupancy around July and August 2018.
The goal is to construct 460-square-foot studios in duplexes available for rent at $750 per month or sale for $115,000. One-bedroom, 576-square-foot units should rent monthly for around $850 or sell for $159,000; two-bedroom, 672- to 836-square-foot detached homes should rent monthly for around $1,050 to $1,250 or sell for $174,000 to $196,000.
The equivalent of three deed-restricted units also are required by the town government as a trade-off for getting permission for the land use change, higher densities and smaller per-unit square footage than is allowed for other single-family homes in town limits. Deed-restricted housing usually means purchase or rental prices would be set and remain at a below-market level, considered affordable to low-income individuals and families.
The town will need to determine how this requirement will be structured by the time of the final plat approval by town council. The Vista Commons Park developers have six months to turn in a preliminary plat, followed by a final plat submittal, both of which need approval by the Planning Commission and Town Council.
“Vista Park Commons is a great project and clearly addresses a need. Joe has some innovative construction techniques, and I believe he is trying hard to bring the project in on budget so that it is truly an affordable project. It hits a market niche that we don’t have. They are going to be small but real nice from what I understand,” Mueller said. “I think the small homes will be well-received. People have been living small for years in Telluride.”
“Higher density is generally the easiest way to make a project more affordable. As dirt prices rise in the town and the region, it will be more important to look at zoning and density if the goal is affordable housing,” he added.
Another proposed project that has small home sizes, higher density and a percentage of deed-restricted units mandated by the town is Lena Street Commons. The development plan, submitted by Tate Rogers of Rogers Real Estate Group, includes 24 units: 15 single-family live/work units, four single-family homes, four commercial spaces, and one as-yet-undesigned commercial building. The 1.606-acre development at 316 North Lena Street, west of the Ridgway Library, is planned with 49 bedrooms and 12,234 square feet of commercial space.
The project is going through the preliminary plat submittal process and is expected to be considered by Town Council within the next couple months. Rogers said because the requirements and expectations are still unknown, he is unable to set a timeline or pricing for units in the project yet. “As far as affordability, it’s a function of the economics: land costs, construction costs, costs of borrowing money — all those factors dictate where the price point is going to be. The fact is, Ridgway is going to be an expensive place to buy and live relative to some other markets like Montrose and Grand Junction. Obviously it is cheaper than Telluride,” he said.
One concern discussed by Town Council was whether the new units could be used as short-term rentals. Many believe the prevalence of short-term rentals exacerbates the affordable housing situation by reducing the availability of long-term rentals.
A May 10 ordinance passed by Town Council after many months of debate put some restrictions on short-term rentals and limited the number to 50. In the Lena Street Commons and Vista Park Commons, restrictions on short-term rentals will likely be required for development approval.
Mueller commented, “The private market is beginning to respond to the demand for long-term rentals and starting to provide additional bedrooms. Kuno Vollenweider just built three nice, long-term rental homes in River Park that are priced well for locals.
“We still enjoy numerous price points and housing options. Compared to San Miguel County, we look cheap. Compared to Montrose County, we are a bit more expensive, which is largely a factor of the more restrictive land use code that has been in place for decades. I think the whole region will continue to grow and prosper. Loghill is looking attractive and we are seeing more young families buying because they appreciate the elbow room, the value and the views,” he added.
Another affordable housing option that is in the planning stages in Ridgway is Space to Create, a local development supported by a state initiative to support economies in rural areas by developing housing options for artists. Ridgway was selected in 2016 to receive state assistance for the project, which is expected to result in a multi-family residential building with about 20 live/work units and a shared studio space.
The Town Council approved the purchase of a property on the northeast corner of Clinton and Laura streets in August, but the purchase has not yet been made. Next steps include an environmental study of the property, contracting with a developer for predevelopment planning, a housing market study, budgeting and financing, according to Ridgway Community Initiatives Facilitator Diedra Silbert.
“The intent is something affordable. The town is investing in the property, and we’ve already applied for development funding from DOLA (Colorado Department of Local Affairs) and the Boettcher Foundation,” Silbert said.
No decision has been made yet about whether units will be rented or sold in the building, nor what the prices might be. Past Space to Create projects have been required to keep rents affordable for people who earn at or below 60 percent of the local area median income. According to the online Rent & Income Calculator© by Novogradac & Company LLP, the maximum qualifying rental rates for Ouray County would be $778 for studios, $834 for one-bedroom units, $1,000 for two bedrooms and $1,156 for three bedrooms.
Before that is determined, “A lot of background things are happening, a lot of negotiating. There’s not a lot of public involvement now but will be more when we get to the design of the building,” Silbert said. “There will be no groundbreaking until 2019, probably at the earliest. The timeline, size, costs and whole scope depend on where the funding comes from.”
Also being discussed at the Planning Commission in August was a multifamily development called Alpenglow Housing. While the plan also is for small homes with tighter setbacks, which will increase the local housing supply, “It is definitely not affordable housing,” said community co-founder George Tischbein.
Tischbein is one of nine people who are developing the neighborhood as a cohousing community, and looking for more individuals and families to join them. “When you build communities like this, each person has a house or duplex unit but also shares in the costs of building and maintaining a common house with shared facilities like a dining area, workshop or study room,” he explained.
The group has a contract to purchase a 4.5-acre property south of State Highway 62, west of the Adobe Inn and east of the Chipeta Solar Resort. The current plan, which still needs to go to Town Council for approval, is to build 24 homes, including both single family and multifamily with a mix of sizes including 900, 1,200 and 1,500 square feet.
“October 16 is when we close on the land, and it’s the only hard deadline at the moment. To be honest, it will be at least a year before we really start construction. Moving in is down the road a ways, hopefully in two years,” he said.
And so, Ridgway’s new and prospective teachers, artists and other employees wait for new affordable housing options. Some question local land use and building codes and how they are impacting the situation.
“There are a number of factors in the town of Ridgway that make the price points higher. The energy code adds significantly. The tap fees have gone up recently and the town expects you to pay those all up front at platting. If they could be paid as lots sell, it would encourage more projects. These are things the town could work with developers on to make new projects feasible,” Mueller said.
“Tiny homes are a piece of the puzzle,” he said. “The minimum square footage is certainly something to look at. Perhaps in the mobile home overlay areas it could be permitted? As long as a house is tasteful-looking to the neighbors, I believe there is a place for smaller homes. Not everyone wants that but there is clearly a market segment that does.”
Michele Follis of Ridgway Real Estate agreed. “We receive so many requests at the office, from buyers looking for property to either place a tiny home or a container home. Unfortunately, it really isn’t an option in our area. And these structures have come a long way. Some are gorgeous and a wonderful option for people to own a home. And actually, that’s true for modular homes. They aren’t what they used to be. And sometimes I wonder what it could create for this area if we were willing to be on the cutting edge.”
Though regulations on home size vary from subdivision to subdivision in Ridgway, neighborhoods without covenants are governed by the town’s building codes, which include some restrictions that make it difficult or impossible to place tiny homes on single-home lots. Within the single-family home design standards, one restrictive rule is the necessity of each home to have one fully enclosed room that is a 21-by-24-foot (504 square feet) rectangle. Homes also must include permanent foundations and indoor plumbing, which not all tiny homes have.
Tom McKenney, a former builder, thinks the town needs to revise those design standards to allow people to build small houses on individual lots. “I have been involved in building several 800-square-foot ancillary dwelling units, which is a use by right in Ridgway. I have seen some that are kind of dowdy and others that are very desirable. I think that you can make a very efficient and livable space in what is perceived as small square footage.”
A longtime Ridgway-Ouray Community Council member who rarely misses a Planning Commission meeting, McKenney also believes the town should consider use taxes for building over a certain square footage as a disincentive to developing too many large, unaffordable homes.
He would like to see the town become more proactive and aggressive in finding more varied options to affordable housing, by reviving the Ouray County Housing Authority to help develop policy.
“The town needs to determine what it is that we are looking for and when we understand what that is, we need to have incentives for doing that and disincentives to people doing things we really don’t want but can’t stop,” he said. “The town could add to the definition of affordable housing to make sure deed restricted and in perpetuity are used.
“Quite often, developers come in with a whole project designated as marketplace affordable housing, which I think is a contradiction in terms. The first person who buys it gets affordable housing, and it doesn’t matter if they are multimillionaires or not. They get a deal and then it goes straight to market and out of the reach of local workers.”
Shay Coburn, who became Ridgway’s first full-time town planner in February, said that the town is looking at all the options for increasing affordable housing and long-term rentals.
“Some of the main direction I’ve been given from day one is we need to be working on affordable housing. Given our capacity and time, we have discussed and researched this with council and planning commission fairly regularly,” said Coburn, adding that a delegation from Ridgway and Ouray will be attending the Community Builders Housing Institute in Glenwood Springs at the end of September to learn about ways to address housing needs and develop an effective housing strategy.
Meanwhile, Principal Greenwood said teachers are willing to live in smaller homes, if they are affordable. There just aren’t enough to be found.
If teachers can live in Ridgway, they are more likely to increase their interactions with students at after-school events and around town all summer long.
It would be positive for the whole community, she said, concluding, “Teachers love their jobs and quality of life in Ridgway, but I wonder how long that vibe can keep going. I hope we can continue to attract teachers as housing gets more expensive.”