By Nick Bowlin, for The Colorado Trust
Drivers entering Gunnison from the east will pass a number of motels off to the side of Highway 50, which runs down into town from Monarch Pass on the Continental Divide. Many travelers seeking adventure in the Rockies—or carrying on to Utah—pass this way. The next substantial town is more than 60 miles and several mountain passes to the west, but tired drivers wishing to stay the night in Gunnison will have little luck at some of the roadside motels on the way into town.
“Extended stay only” reads the sign outside the ABC Suites. Once a motel, the business no longer takes nightly lodgers. The ABC Suites, along with some of its neighboring lodging facilities, have become long-term and sometimes permanent residences for locals.
The reason for this trend is simple: Gunnison County is in the midst of a housing crisis, years in the making and intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic fallout.
Like other mountainous regions in the state, affordable housing is scarce in Gunnison County, which includes the towns of Gunnison and Crested Butte. For years, prices have ballooned, and supply has not kept up with demand. Gunnison County’s workers put 32% of their income on average toward rent, compared to 19% in non-tourism-based economies, according to an analysis by Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research firm.
The economic drivers of the area contribute to this shortage. Jobs and tourism dollars are concentrated in Crested Butte, 30 miles north of Gunnison. Crested Butte is a posh ski town. Outside wealth and investment have poured in for decades, and finding affordable housing in town is difficult for anyone but the rich.
A 2016 county housing study found a significant imbalance: jobs are concentrated in Crested Butte, but many of those workers commute from Gunnison, where they live and scramble for housing, pushing rental prices up and reducing supply. “Rents are at record levels and rental availability is extremely limited, whereas prices for single family homes are now at or near pre-recession levels,” the study found. “In both cases, homes affordable for the local workforce are in short supply. Conditions have been somewhat more stable in the South Valley [the Gunnison area] but more volatile in the North Valley [the Crested Butte area], which is often the case in tourism-dominant economies.”
“Availability is so limited that renters who want to reside in the North Valley are forced to live in the South Valley where many rental units are not well maintained,” the study also stated.
And this was before the pandemic.
A wave of transplants, eager to take advantage of remote-work opportunities, poured into Gunnison County in 2020, pushing the housing market to new heights. The three-month rolling average for housing prices increased 19% on July 1 compared to 2019, and increased 24% compared to 2018, according to county assessor data.
The rise of motels as long-term or sometimes permanent residences is a function of this housing crunch, according to local housing officials. In some cases, an extended stay in one of the motels makes sense—for a construction crew working on a highway project, for example, or someone only in the area for the winter ski season. But also staying in these motels are permanent Gunnison residents, families, people who want permanent housing but cannot find it.
“As a community, we should not point to [extended-stay motels] as a long-term solution to affordable housing,” said Jennifer Kermode, executive director of the Gunnison Valley Regional Housing Authority. “It’s not acceptable.”
Maria Diaz and her husband, Marcos, have lived in the area for nearly two decades and have five children. She is a housekeeper and he does ranch work. Both are originally from the town of Jesús María in western Mexico. They are Cora, Indigenous people from Mexico; there is a substantial Cora community in Gunnison.
A few years ago, the couple and their youngest children were renting a trailer in Antelope Hills, a subdivision in the hills west of Gunnison. The trailer needed repairs, and the family lacked running water for several weeks. The owner of the trailer also owned the ABC Suites and offered them a room. So the family packed in, though the space was so tight that their older children sometimes stayed elsewhere during the school week.
Like most of the motel rooms, their single room had one bathroom, little privacy and no kitchen. The family ate a lot of takeout or prepared chicken from the grocery store. It made her sad, Maria Diaz recalled, that she couldn’t make the tortillas, pollo con arroz and fish tacos that she often prepares for her kids.
“The kids were frustrated and bored, they cried, they missed having their own food,” Maria Diaz said. It was hard on her, too. There’s little to do in the single, crowded room, and it took a toll on her mental health.
“I felt like I was suffering and got depressed,” she said.
The family did not pay rent directly on the room, but Diaz did some housekeeping work at the motel, and they continued paying $1,400 in monthly rent on the trailer. After leaving the motel, they eventually moved out of the trailer, as well. It was too hard on the family.
Flor Lutin, the owner of the ABC Suites, originally declined to comment for this story, but subsequently responded two days after it was published. Lutin said that the Diaz family came to her and asked for help purchasing the trailer, and that they fell behind on payments (Diaz acknowledged that the family could not meet these payments). Lutin disagreed that the family was not able to cook its food, and said that she sees herself as providing much-needed housing for the community, helping to meet the high demand. She is upset, she said, to hear the criticisms from her former tenants.
“I really thought I was giving them a service that they needed, but I’m starting to realize that that’s not the case,” Lutin said over the phone. “They are taking advantage of a service I provide. And they are criticizing and saying how unhappy they are, it’s almost like biting the hand that feeds you.”
Diaz said she kept searching, but the multi-bedrooms homes went quickly, and all she could find were tiny rentals or one-bedroom apartments. Finally, after a year and a half, the family got lucky and snagged a mobile home in the Rio Grande Trailer Park, which is tucked beside the Gunnison County airport.
“It was so hard to find anything,” she said.
This housing shortage drives some, but not all, of the demand for motel rooms as extended-stay residences. Between travelling nurses at the county hospital, construction contractors, Crested Butte Mountain Resort employees in the winter and river guides and outfitters in the summer, the area hosts many transient workers seeking housing for just a few months at a time. Agricultural and ranch workers—some on work visas—rely on the motel rooms as well.
The conversion of motels from hosting vacationers to long-term lodgers has happened over the past several years in Gunnison, according to city and county officials. Two of the motels—the Sherpa and the Western, both of which still advertise for some nightly lodgers—are owned by Pemba Sherpa, a local businessman who also owns the Sherpa Café, a nearby Nepalese restaurant. (Sherpa declined to comment for this story after numerous attempts to contact him.)
The ABC Suites, where Diaz and her family lived, sits along the same strip of highway. The motel is listed as for sale online with a $2.4 million price tag. The property “has been run as a hotel for many years and recently changed to long terms stays,” the listing reads.
This change falls into a fuzzy legal situation. As Gunnison defines it, a motel or hotel is by definition short-term lodging, with stays of 29 days or less, said Anton Sinkewich, the city’s community development director. This means that motel owners cannot offer leases, but several tenants describe arrangements that seem to be leases in all but name: agreements that state that the tenant will sign a new 29-day contract every month for an extended period of time. None of these motel rooms have true kitchens; sometimes, they include a small refrigerator and microwave. On its website, the ABC Suites describes a shared cooking area.
“Special prices are from $800 to $995 per month for 3 months or more and from $950 to $1,150 for 1 month with a $700 refundable deposit,” the website stated in mid April.
Last year, Sinkewich said the city contacted the motel operators and made sure they understood the compliance requirements that separate motels from more permanent residential-zoning requirements. Asking tenants to agree to multiple, month-long contracts remains legal, he said, but he acknowledged that these arrangements are “definitely a gray area.”
Formally converting to a condominium or a multi-family apartment building of some kind would require a zoning permit change with the city, as well as expensive renovations to the motels themselves. This would include installing real kitchens in each unit, which would involve significant electrical and sewer updates, among other things. Sinkewich said the city does not have a mechanism to force operators to make changes of this sort.
Given the housing scarcity, it makes sense that people are turning to the motels, said Betsy Holena, an employee with the Gunnison County Department of Health & Human Services. The agency often works with families and individuals dealing with unstable housing—a particular concern during the winter, when the temperature can drop below zero for days at a time—including people who recently moved to the area, and sometimes people recently released from incarceration. She said her office has a good working relationship with the motel owners. The agency offers housing assistance grants of various kinds, the owners work with Health & Human Services when a tenant can’t make rent, or when the agency needs to put up someone in need for a few nights.
Sherpa “cares about the tenants and is flexible with the tenants and individuals living over there,” she said.
Even so, motels are not designed to be permanent dwellings. The lack of a kitchen forces tenants to eat out often, which is expensive. For people with lower incomes, this can mean a lot of unhealthy fast food.
There is a strong association between negative health outcomes and housing quality issues. According to Tri-County Health Network, a western Colorado health care nonprofit (and a Colorado Trust grantee), people living in Gunnison and surrounding counties that have more pressing housing needs—including sub-par or inconsistent housing—visit the emergency room at a much higher rate than people with stable housing.
“Poor quality and inadequate housing contribute to health problems such as chronic diseases and injuries,” said Mary Burt, regional health connector for Tri-County Health Network. “Poor indoor air quality, lead paint and other hazards often coexist in low-income housing, placing children and families at great risk for multiple health problems.”
The 2016 county housing report estimated that Gunnison County would need 420 units of housing beyond what the market was likely to produce by 2020, including 185 rental units and 235 owned units. Suffice to say, that goal was not met, though both the towns of Gunnison and Crested Butte, along with the county at large, have been developing affordable housing units that are beginning to come online.
GardenWalk, a 36-unit affordable housing complex in Gunnison built with low-income housing tax credit funds, is now accepting renters. The nearby Paintbrush development is almost done and will begin accepting renters in June 2021, per its website. Built using low-income housing tax credit funds, a majority of the 77 units are restricted to either middle or moderate-income earners. An affordable housing project known as Lazy K remains in progress.
These buildings will help, but the affordable housing deficit remains extreme and years in the making. And with the post-pandemic housing boom, Gunnison is facing economic trends that seem likely to make affordable housing even more scarce.
For people with low incomes (or fixed incomes, like Medicare or disability benefits), it’s easy to get trapped, Holena said. They can’t save money or plan for the next step when so much of their income goes to the next month’s rent. And the housing options are getting slimmer every year. Holena said that county residents with middle-class incomes are increasingly looking at mobile homes in Gunnison’s trailer parks, further squeezing out truly low-income earners. In this grim context, a steady motel room, a month at a time, becomes the only option available for some.
This is the case for one couple living in the Western Motel. (They spoke on the condition of anonymity, so as to avoid repercussions from the motel’s owner.) He works in a restaurant. She is currently unemployed and is recovering from an injury. They have lived in the motel for more than a year and a half now.
It’s expensive, more than $1,200 per month for a simple room with no kitchen; they can’t do much baking or cooking, but it’s better than their previous place, a small cabin outside of town near the Gunnison River. The cabin was terribly cold, and without a car, they had to walk or bike everywhere, or get rides from friends.
They spent years seeking in vain for better housing, but they never found anything, and the job market is bad for two workers in their age ranges. They’re glad to have the room, especially given the turmoil of the past year. Both lost jobs at the start of the pandemic.
“Our room is clean and we feel good,” said the woman. “We consider it a big room.”