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The High Plains Manor in Yuma is part of the Yuma Housing Authority and has 50 units to serve the elderly and people with disabilities with rents based on income. All the units are full. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

YUMA — In one of her two jobs, Kerri Horton visits the homes of new and expectant mothers to advise them on healthy practices as they step into parenthood. Along the way, she sometimes catches an inside look at what the lack of affordable housing looks like in rural Colorado.

One young mother she counseled paid well over half of her meager income for a “tiny, tiny home,” barely even a studio apartment. Since then, Horton has seen the same cruel math catching up to a growing number of locals — including herself.

Kerri Horton explains the maintenance work that has been going on over the course of weeks at the home she rents in Yuma, as her grandson Brayden, 3, plays in the yard. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

She and her husband, Wes, pay $900 a month for a three-bedroom frame house on a quiet corner in town. It was manageable when her mother was living with them and paying one-third of the rent. But when she passed away, the calculus changed.

If she adds utilities, Horton estimates that her household has become one of those that has passed that 50%-for-housing threshold, which affects not just the poor, but also those farther up the income scale. At any level, the federal government calls it “severely cost-burdened.”

Horton calls it choosing between paying rent and stocking the refrigerator.

“Last month was rough,” she says. “We had to choose, and for a couple of weeks we didn’t have hardly anything in the fridge. And we make just over the (maximum) income for food stamps.”

About one-fourth of rural counties in the U.S. have seen significant increases since the end of the Great Recession in the number of households that spend at least half their income on housing, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by the Pew Research Center’s Stateline.

In Colorado, more than a dozen rural counties, clustered near the eastern and western borders, have shown similar increases. Yuma County had the largest increase, by percentage, of severely cost-burdened households of anywhere in the state: the county’s 4.4% that met the criteria in 2010 nearly doubled to 8.5% in 2017.

Data showed that southwest Colorado’s San Miguel County, which includes the upscale ski mecca of Telluride, had nearly 23% of households in that most extreme category. But one housing official argues the figure could be skewed, and that Census numbers might not accurately capture the dynamics of a ski town and programs designed to provide affordable employee housing options.

Bent County, in the state’s southeast quadrant, checks in at just over 20%. There, in the Lower Arkansas Valley, the narrative more closely follows a common rural refrain: Bypassed by the post-recession recovery, the region’s wages remain stagnant while housing starts are few and existing units sag under decades of disrepair.

Steve Cordova, executive director of the Tri-County Housing and Community Development Corp., serves Bent. But he also oversees Otero and Crowley — where about 17% of each county’s population ranks as severely cost-burdened by housing. He notes that in 2017, each county issued just four building permits.

“So you have lack of supply and incomes are low,” he says. “That will contribute to the fact that people spend a large portion of income on housing.”

Bent County’s 20% figure, he adds, may be shaded by the presence of a transitional housing program for homeless people at Fort Lyon in Las Animas. “That may skew the number slightly,” Cordova allows, “but I don’t think it’s too far off.”

When she’s not assisting new or soon-to-be mothers, Horton works for the nonprofit Yuma Unified Making Advances, which is zeroing in on housing as a possible focus for its upcoming community efforts. One item on the agenda: walking the town and helping people complete their Census forms, because the housing tally helps determine federal aid like the number of Section 8 vouchers allotted.

“And we will probably look into a needs assessment, which will be comprehensive,” Horton says. “We’ll look not only at how many housing units are available potentially, but how many are needed — and then look at that disparity. We know we absolutely have to dive deep to make any sustainable change.”

Kerri Horton explains the maintenance work that has been going on for weeks at the home she rents in Yuma. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

“I pray that the school doesn’t have activities that involve money.”

In her office at the Rural Communities Resource Center on Yuma’s Main Street, 29-year-old Mercedes Quezada pulls two pay stubs from her desk drawer to demonstrate what it means to be severely cost-burdened.

One stub is for $920, the other for $674 — adding up to a month’s pay. Two 12-hour days working as a ranch hand on the weekend might add another $100.

Her rent runs $850 a month. That leaves her and her two children, ages 8 and 9, only $674 to pay for everything else — utilities, phone, gas, food and all the incidentals of family life.

“I pray that the school doesn’t have activities that involve money,” Quezada says. “We all live here paycheck to paycheck.”

Born in Texas, she grew up down the highway in Wray, the daughter of migrant workers, and graduated from the local high school in 2007. Back then, she recalls, her mom found the family a four-bedroom, two-story home for $550 a month.

She left Colorado in 2009 to live in Texas, then decided to return to what she felt would be a better life for her kids. She didn’t expect to find much higher rents. And where once a single phone call could put anyone in touch with multiple housing options, now there was little to choose from.

Quezada sees her own frustration mirrored in the clients who venture into the resource center seeking help with the rent or utilities.

“I thought I’d come back to civilization,” she says, “but you can hear the desperation in people’s voices. It’s rough here when people come in asking for help because they’re $200 short on a deposit. People who contract at the hog farms and feedlots, I don’t know how they do it when they get here. They’ll pile up with friends and family till they get something.

“But three families leave and five more show up,” she said. “There’s just no rentals out there.”

At the Yuma Housing Authority, which oversees what few low-income or subsidized units are available, turnover is barely a trickle, while the waiting lists continue to grow.

For instance, in one, low-income program that includes 20 units, director Stefanie Cheshire has seen only two tenants move out in the last 18 months. She usually turns over six or seven units a year. Section 8 housing, which provides government payments to private landlords who rent to low-income tenants, hasn’t budged.

“People at this point in time are staying put,” Cheshire says.

A maintenance truck for the Yuma Housing Authority parked at the High Plains Manor, one of the authority’s housing units. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Without housing, harder to fill good new jobs

Yuma County commissioner Robin Wiley acknowledges that affordable housing is a “huge problem” that impacts the area’s ability to fill critical jobs. The lack of affordable housing for teachers remains a common problem throughout the state, but in places like Yuma County it also touches institutions like local hospitals.

“So much of the time, when we go to recruit professionals, teachers, nurses, it’s hard to recruit because they can’t find any place to live they can afford,” Wiley says, noting that local economic development experts are searching for solutions.

The remedy isn’t as simple as building more housing, he adds. Although a few duplexes have gone up, construction costs, higher due to the county’s distance from metropolitan hubs of materials and labor, make affordability a difficult proposition. He recalls one program that offered low-interest financing for home construction, but few people applied — and those who did couldn’t find contractors.

“If you want to build a home here, I suspect you’re looking at six months to a year on a waiting list,” he says. “I don’t know what the answer is. What little inventory is out here, many times it’s old and run down, and the owner doesn’t want to spend money to upgrade. We could definitely use more people with training in not only general contracting, but electrical and plumbing.”

One of Yuma’s mobile home parks sits next to the railroad in the shadow of a grain elevator next to the city’s largest park and public pool. Many homes in Yuma are aging as distance from construction labor and resources makes new construction and upgrades expensive and hard to manage. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

System “not built to allow rural places to prosper”

The confounding factors that Wiley describes aren’t unusual or particularly new to rural areas across America.

David Lipsetz, CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Housing Assistance Council, which provides funding, training and other resources to help rural nonprofits address affordable housing, points out that public intervention and policy around housing tend to come from the federal level.

“There’s an amazing system that has helped hundreds of millions of Americans afford places to live,” he says. “But it’s a system not built to allow rural places to prosper in the same way as urban America.”

Lipsetz notes three factors that disproportionately impact rural housing, starting with access to credit. It’s both more difficult and more expensive to access the mortgage market in rural areas, he says — both for individuals and developers.

Next, there’s a concept he refers to as elasticity — the ability of different markets to deal with change. More populous, complex residential areas are better equipped to adapt to shifting conditions because their size softens the immediate effect.

Rural areas, on the other hand, see outsized impact from relatively small fluctuations. A gain or loss of five jobs, the arrival or departure of a single employer — all can come with major repercussions to housing.

Finally, rural areas simply have less capacity. Fewer people equals less specialization in a modern economy that demands it. The impact on housing can come in several forms, including shortages in building trades and even appraisers. “If you don’t have a home appraiser within 250 miles of your house,” Lipsetz says, “you’ll end up with dysfunctions of pricing in the market. The appraisals are less reliable.”

There are programs designed to deal with housing shortages, he adds, but they’re mostly built to work in concert with market forces in high-volume areas. “If you have a system like that for 50-plus years,” he says, “you end up with what we have today — wealth and population are extracted from rural places and given to places where economies and communities are more fully supported by the market.”

But the good news, says Elena Wilken, executive director of Housing Colorado, an affordable housing advocacy group, is that just as rural areas feel disproportionate impact from small economic or population fluctuations, they also can turn relatively small investments into big differences. The trick is convincing policymakers that it’s worth the expense.

MORE: Aspen’s workers are hitting retirement age. And that’s made the resort town’s employee housing program a ticking time bomb.

“The challenge in rural areas is that the numbers are small,” she says. “You can have a huge impact in a small community, but how do you measure success? I may think it’s worth it, but some people look at the numbers and say there’s only impact for 100 people.”

This year, Colorado’s legislature launched a historically broad effort to boost affordable housing statewide, even though it eventually was scaled back to fund other priorities. One bill headed for Gov. Jared Polis’ desk will double the amount Colorado puts toward tax credits for affordable housing from $5 million to $10 million annually from 2020-24.

When it comes to encouraging development of multi-family housing projects, those tax credits represent a key financing tool, according to Jaime Gomez, deputy executive director and COO of the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority. And CHFA is using those credits to target some rural areas.

One type of tax credit, awarded to competing developers, is then sold to private sector parties looking to reduce their federal tax liability. The infusion of cash subsidizes the developer, who can then afford to charge lower rents.

In applications for those credits, CHFA prioritizes communities of 175,000 population and smaller. Gomez says that over the last five to seven years, there’s been a substantial increase in applications from rural areas.

“There’s been a lot of education that we’ve done in terms of making sure developers throughout the state, including rural areas, understand this resource is available and how it works,” he says. “It’s literally the most important financing tool for multi-family rentals in the nation, both for the construction and preservation of affordable housing.”

In the past few years, the tax credit program has helped finance low-income housing in several smaller communities, including 36 units in Gunnison, 26 in Nederland, 54 in Burlington, 24 in Woodland Park, 50 in New Castle, 48 in Buena Vista and 50 in Cortez.

But even with tax credits, new construction of multi-family units can be challenging, notes Housing Colorado’s Wilken.

MORE: Telluride isn’t immune to Colorado’s high country housing problem. But it’s finding a solution in diversification

“Median income levels are so low in some rural areas, you can’t charge enough rent to get the project to be sustainable,” she says. “It’s a business model that doesn’t work. With low numbers of people and low incomes, it’s hard to get projects to pencil out, is what I’ve been told.”

In the Arkansas Valley, Cordova of Tri-County Housing explains one step that’s being taken to boost housing supply in a market where it’s difficult to make new construction work.

A significant share of the homes in the area were built 30 to 40 years ago, and because wages stagnated, they went without repairs or upgrades. Two bedrooms, one bath and a one-car garage might have been sufficient in the 1970s, but now families want three bedrooms, minimum, multiple baths and a two-car garage.

Here’s the problem: The cost of constructing a new house in the region tends to be greater than what it will appraise for. So Cordova and others are looking to create a new loan product that takes advantage of existing, though substandard, properties.

This new financing will help families improve those homes by adding that third bedroom or second bath, or otherwise updating the property. “That’s tens of thousands of dollars people in our area just don’t have to bridge that gap,” he says.

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Reflecting two studies over the last decade that showed an affordable housing shortage for families right at the area’s median income and even above it, the new program will come with no income restrictions. In Bent County, the median household income falls around $35,000 — about one-half the statewide figure.

“That’s working people — nurses, teachers, firefighters and police,” Cordova says. “They also need some type of relief to live the American dream of home ownership.”

If there’s one thing housing advocates agree on, it’s that despite the best efforts to bring equity to rural housing markets, there’s no quick fix. Or, as Lipsetz notes: “It took us decades to get into this mess, and its complexity will require decades to get out.”

A Hoch Real Estate sign in front of the building that used to house Yuma’s Nazarene Church, which has been turned into townhomes. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Some homes sit vacant while available services are waiting-list-only

Kerri Horton steers her car through the streets of Yuma, pointing out features that make the town’s affordable housing shortage such a conundrum.

Parcels of undeveloped land hug the main highway through town, well-situated for housing but vacant nonetheless. There’s a nice complex of townhomes on South Ivy Street, across from the hospital, that was financed with low-income tax credits, and so most of the 20 units can’t rent for more than a prescribed maximum for the area. But some units remain market rate.

There’s a waiting list.

Turning onto West Third Avenue, Horton points to High Plains Manor, where 50 units serve the elderly and people with disabilities with rents based on income. That’s full, too.

Then there’s some acreage in the northeast part of town that the city purchased.

“We hope there will be some affordable housing,” Hortons says. “But it’s right next to the golf course. So chances of it being affordable are slim to none.”

Yuma city manager Scott Moore told The Yuma Pioneer in March that the city has three goals for the land — housing, recreation and education — but stressed that the city is not in the land development business.

Then there are the houses sprinkled throughout the town. Some are well-kept, others show their age and neglect. They’re vacant, including a nice one just across the street from Horton’s home. For whatever reason, the owners don’t want to rent them out, don’t want to sell. More potential.

“My wishes,” Horton says, “are that all the vacant land in Yuma County could be affordable, profitable housing that people will feel safe in. Affordable housing is definitely an issue in our community and across the country. It’s a matter of what private property owners are willing to do, and what local governments are willing and able to do.”


Kevin Simpson is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a general assignment writer and editor. He also oversees the Sun’s literary feature, SunLit, and the site’s cartoonists. A St. Louis native and graduate of the University of Missouri’s...