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Housing

In rural towns like Kit Carson, a housing and development conundrum born of rising costs, disrepair — and lots of asbestos

As existing home stock deteriorates, locals struggle to reconcile needed business development with sparse affordable housing. A small town’s future can hang in the balance.

Jason Dechant, a farmer, rancher and member of the Kit Carson town council, stands outside a recently renovated home. Like many rural Colorado towns, Kit Carson is struggling to provide affordable housing and attract development that could create jobs. (Carl Payne, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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KIT CARSON — The hope for rural sustainability in this small, spare town lives in a light-brown, 1,800-square-foot, two-story frame house with four bedrooms and three baths. Her name is LouRae Rady, a single mom and a second-grade teacher at the sparkling new school just a couple blocks away.

The hope lies in Rady, whose three daughters have grown up here, but also in the house itself. She rented it for nearly five years since it was built in the late summer of 2016. 

Last week, she bought it.

“Mortgage lenders don’t look highly upon a single mom with three kids, working as a teacher in rural Colorado,” Rady says. “They think that’s kind of a high risk. So it’s been a long process, but it felt great to finally be able to sign the papers.”

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The mechanisms that smoothed the purchase — a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, along with contributions from other partners cobbled together by Kit Carson Rural Development (KCRD), a nonprofit created to help solve the local housing puzzle — achieved the desired result. An essential member of the local workforce, plus another generation represented by her kids, got the boost they needed to add to the legacy of a close-knit rural community.

But the numbers behind the transaction illustrate the challenge Kit Carson and many other rural Colorado towns face as they confront a housing crisis that looks at first like the manic metro markets on the Front Range, with a decidedly different twist. KCRD bought the generous lot for $10,000 in what it regards as one of the organization’s thriftier purchases. And it didn’t cost much to clear away a rundown mobile home. 

But the new house cost $247,000 to build — a hefty price tag, even for 2016. It appraised for $120,000.  

“And that’s what we sold it to her for,” says KCRD chair Amy Johnson, who, even factoring in five years of rent, can’t bear to do the math on the financial loss. “That’s why it doesn’t work out here. But it’s her first home that she’s ever owned — three kids, a teacher, someone we absolutely didn’t want to lose in the community. And if we didn’t have this house, I don’t know if she’d still be living in her mom’s basement or if she would have moved on, because we didn’t have anything else in town.”

LouRae Rady, right, and her three daughters sit outside the four-bedroom, three-bath home she was able to buy for $120,000 from Kit Carson Rural Development. The house cost more than twice that much to build, illustrating the difficulty of creating affordable housing in remote rural communities on the Eastern Plains. (Provided by Jason Dechant)

Kit Carson, with a population of fewer than 300 amid the windswept plains of Cheyenne County ranches and dryland farms, regards itself as a case study in rural Colorado’s upstream struggle against powerful currents. Declining population, shifting economics of agriculture, absentee property ownership, and an aging and too-often-deteriorating housing inventory have collided to pose more than just a theoretical threat to its future.

“Throw asbestos into that pile and it’s just a mess,” Johnson says, zeroing in on the toxic environmental issue that renders much of the town’s inventory of older homes challenging candidates for refurbishing.

Jason Dechant, a member of the six-person town council and a fourth-generation resident, likens the overarching problem to the chicken-or-the-egg conundrum: Which comes first?    Seeking out economic development, like a full-blown truck stop that he imagines could serve  the steady stream of commerce that rumbles along U.S. 287? Or building homes to house the workers who could fill those jobs?

Finding a solution to both problems has become a Rubik’s Cube of trial and error as he, Johnson and other civic leaders employ whatever tools are at hand — opportunity zones, enterprise zones, tax credits, grants — to entice local investment. The promise of more wind farms in the region could soon bring temporary construction jobs, but the real competition among the Eastern Plains towns resides in attracting well-paying permanent jobs.

Rural areas run into problems adding affordable housing largely because the type of funding sources typically available favor bigger projects, says Jaime Gomez, deputy executive director and chief operating officer of the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority.

“They’re really targeted for helping developers build projects that are 30, 40, 50 units and larger, when a community like Kit Carson needs something more like 12 or 10 or fewer units,” Gomez says, adding that CHFA is seeking ways to help developers who don’t have to access the typical federal resources like housing tax credits or private activity bonds build on a scale that might better fit rural areas.

On the west end of town, owners of a parcel alongside the highway had interest from a developer who envisioned it as a full-service truck stop as recently as a couple of years ago. But, Dechant says, the developer backed out over fears that there wouldn’t be workers to staff the operation — another example of the chicken-or-the-egg proposition tied to housing. 

Ultimately, the property owners decided to sell to KCRD late last year, and the parcel awaits development.

Kit Carson, a small community on Highway 287 in Cheyenne County on the Eastern Plains, has a parcel of land that a developer planned to turn into a full-service truck stop. But he pulled out of the project for fear that there wasn’t a sufficient local work force to operate it. Locals face the conundrum of whether business development or housing needs to come first to sustain small-town rural Colorado. (Carl Payne, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Meanwhile, Kit Carson has adopted a build-it-and-they-will-come approach on some projects. KCRD bought a vacant commercial building alongside the highway, did some renovation and  quickly filled it with three tenants — a Western clothing store, a hair salon and an insurance company. Late last month, the owner of the Western wear store pulled out and moved to Oklahoma.

Johnson is currently writing a grant proposal to the Colorado Department of Local Affairs to construct a new building and install a shared workspace, leveraging high-speed internet and the growing remote-workplace model.

“I think a shared workspace is a really important thing for rural communities now,” Johnson says. “It kind of gives us that level playing field, maybe. And then the rest of the building would be available for lease. Maybe to a wind farm.”

“A vicious cycle”

But housing remains the most daunting challenge.

KCRD, which began with the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1990s and went dormant a few years later, was revived in 2005. Almost immediately, the group was approached by the local school district for help finding teacher housing. 

In partnership with the Prairie Development Corporation, KCRD restored a couple of remaining units from an abandoned duplex project, marking its return to the housing market. A large HUD grant and some auxiliary funding, plus donated services from the University of Colorado Denver School of Architecture, yielded five rental homes in 2010 — one of which was earmarked for a teacher’s family — that all have been filled since completion.

On another vacant lot, the group is looking to build a three-bedroom, two-bath house to serve as worker housing for the coming wind farm.

But it’s a constant battle, and the process gets trickier as rising construction costs exceed appraisals. Even to procure federal grant money, Kit Carson often must compete with much-larger communities. Grant applications can require more than 200 hours to complete, and the town’s development efforts are spearheaded by unpaid volunteers with competing responsibilities. 

Johnson’s family owns and runs a ranch outside of town. Dechant, the councilman who focuses more on larger development, is a farmer and rancher who also coaches high school basketball and is a volunteer firefighter. The town itself has only one city worker and one clerk, and it lacks a parks-and-recreation district, water- and air-quality overseers, or even a public-housing project.

In Kit Carson, a newly renovated home (foreground) sits next to a home still in the planning phase of remodeling. Kit Carson Rural Development, with help from partners and grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development works to buy abandoned houses and convert them into habitable homes, but the economics are daunting. (Carl Payne, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The scramble toward sustainability gets further complicated by the breadth and depth of the housing crisis. Kit Carson is hardly alone among rural Colorado towns facing the Catch-22 of juggling economic development and housing, says Candace Payne, executive director of the East Central Council of Governments.

Payne also serves as the administrator for the Prairie Development Corporation, which helped KCRD with the rehabbed duplexes and provides down-payment assistance for some low- to moderate-income housing loans for Cheyenne, Kit Carson, Elbert and Lincoln counties.

The issues surrounding housing and development are pervasive, she says.

“It’s a vicious cycle, and we all see that,” Payne says. “I am a member of the business loan fund group, and we as administrators all talk about that which comes first: the families and the housing or the jobs that they need to be able to even live out here.”

With COVID, she adds, she has seen an increase in people moving from the more metro urban areas out to rural areas “just to get their kids in schools instead of remote learning.” But Kit Carson seems to be a bit beyond the attractive option of less remote counties.

Jennifer Wells, newly hired director of economic development for Cheyenne County, points out that rural Colorado’s economic decline — in terms of housing and jobs — has been going on for more than 20 years. Some towns already have slowly withered away to next to nothing.

“We’re rural Colorado and we’re tough,” Wells says. “We kind of pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. But I do feel like we might lose some of these small towns. I know Wild Horse and Arapahoe were part of Cheyenne County, and they used to be thriving — and now they’re just ghost towns, basically. Arapahoe still has a few houses and people and a post office. So does Wild Horse, but there’s not much left of it, and it used to be the county seat.”

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There’s also the changing economics of agriculture. Johnson points out that tasks on her ranch that once required more than a dozen workers now can be done by a single person — a labor metric that she says has become common in farming as well.

Although rural Colorado shares many of the same problems, Payne says Kit Carson stands apart from many other towns because it has volunteers such as Johnson and KCRD dedicated to solving the housing issue.

“Amy’s been instrumental for getting housing projects going through the nonprofit they have,” Payne says. “They’re getting projects through to fruition so they can actually either sell the home or rent the property out, basically making a specific effort in their community. Other communities don’t have people quite like that.”

School and housing intertwined

The sense of community that has long been part of the rural ethos does have some brick and mortar to back it up. Turn north off the highway onto Main Street and in a couple blocks you’ll enter the parking lot of the Kit Carson School, a recently opened $32 million jewel that serves pre-K through 12th grade.

The town benefited from a $24 million state BEST grant, as well as an $8 million bond issue and property-tax increase that passed overwhelmingly. 

As in most small communities, school and housing issues are intertwined. Recruitment of teachers in rural areas has been notoriously difficult, a circumstance exacerbated by paltry inventory of livable options. In Kit Carson, some of the homes KCRD has either rehabbed or built from scratch now house teachers — including one home that it gave to the school. A music teacher now lives there. But in the long term, housing represents just one piece of the quality-of-life mix, says school district Superintendent Robert Framel.

“We sort of have one restaurant that’s open,” he says, referring to the Trading Post that has been closed during the pandemic. “We have the bank, we have a small grocery store, but there’s nothing open after 5 p.m. And so, it’s a two-way street. We need more housing so we can have more people here, so we can have more businesses here. And we need more businesses here so we can have places for people to work. It’s a complex issue, just trying to keep our town not only thriving, but even basically alive.”

One of the few restaurants in Kit Carson is closed temporarily due to the pandemic. As the Kit Carson Rural Development program works to bring families back into homes, other efforts are geared toward economic development that can bring new jobs to the area. (Carl Payne, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Framel allows that Kit Carson has been fortunate to find teachers who have chosen to put down roots in the area — sometimes by marriage to a local rancher or farmer — but also realizes that’s not the norm. He’s well aware of other districts that have struggled with teacher retention and high turnover rates.

While folks such as Dechant and Johnson have scrambled to create additional housing, Framel braces for that time in the not-so-distant future when he’ll have to recruit teachers all over again.

“We’re just super fortunate that we haven’t had massive turnover, but we’re expecting that in about five years, as about a third of my staff is eligible to retire,” he says.

The new school building could easily handle 200 students, but only 110 are currently enrolled, which in some ways — like single-digit class sizes — has its advantages. But more kids triggering the state per-pupil funding model would certainly help the budget.

“So we could gain 90 kids without blinking,” Framel says, “but, of course, you have to have housing to do that.”

The town isn’t talking big numbers — just a relative handful of livable homes can move the needle for a place such as Kit Carson.  

“It’s not like we need 100 units,” Dechant says. “We need 10, and you’d probably never have to hear from us again. If we can get somebody to invest in us, that could keep us going.”

On the south side of U.S. 287, from where KCRD has converted properties with the help of HUD grants, there’s a large, empty expanse that was platted for development but now sits idle. The city owns most of the lots, including a square parcel in the middle that is designated for a park. The county owns another, corner piece of the grid that Dechant says could be negotiated into the mix — if development were to happen. 

“But, you know, this isn’t a bad place to try to put a house,” he says.

Jason Dechant stands outside a lot where a new home is planned along Main Street in Kit Carson. Not far away, a sparkling new $32-million school recently opened. Housing and education are closely intertwined in small-town rural Colorado, where affordable housing for teachers can be scarce. (Carl Payne, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In fact, Dechant sees it as a prime candidate for a project financed by low-income-housing tax credits — but in researching five years of projects by nonurban developers, the closest he found to a rural project was in Alamosa, whose population dwarfs Kit Carson. And size tends to be a barrier, he adds, with the kind of local project he envisions — a handful of single-family homes rather than large blocks of apartments — too small to attract investors.

The Colorado Housing and Finance Authority (CHFA) offers financial resources all over the state to assist with affordable housing, but the last project it took on in Kit Carson happened back in the early 1980s. The 10-unit Hillten Apartments went in — they were technically duplexes for low-income tenants — and Dechant recalls living there briefly early in his childhood.

But tenants outgrew the income limits. The units went vacant and gradually were abandoned, until only two remained. That’s when KCRD stepped in and renewed its housing work with the five units it created on the property in 2010.

As for CHFA’s projects, most are clustered in Front Range metro areas. But the agency says it’s working to respond to the statewide concerns about the particular problems rural areas face that emerged from its listening tours.

Jerilynn Francis, CHFA’s marketing and community relations director, notes that “a small-community collaborative” usually wants to build small-scale affordable housing, but it may not know where to begin.

“And so our goal is to try and help match them with housing consultants that can help them put that vision into reality,” she says. “So that’s just a small innovation that we’re working on launching.”

Francis also pointed to an online resource in the works to help walk communities through the steps toward connecting with the right partners. The resource, which CHFA will announce on its website, is expected to launch in the summer.

In the meantime, Dechant continues casting lines in the direction of anyone who might look with sympathetic eyes toward rural Colorado.

“Sometimes it feels overwhelming,” Dechant says. “We’ll throw everything against the wall and see what sticks.”

Many of the existing but unoccupied homes in Kit Carson are beyond repair. Costs to mitigate environmental concerns like asbestos and demolish the structures adds to the already-high cost of new construction, making affordable housing a challenging proposition in rural Colorado. (Carl Payne, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Rules, owners who won’t sell…and asbestos

On a quick tour of the town, Johnson points to a property she considered a potential site for a new house. But while HUD came through with the grant, it turned down the site because of its proximity to railroad tracks — a prime example of what Johnson calls one-size-fits-all rules that simply don’t work in rural America.

“Half of our properties aren’t going to be eligible because they’re too close to the noise, because HUD has regulations,” she says. “It’s the rules for ‘We don’t want to put all our low-income housing in the bad part of town.’ But then you come to rural America. It shouldn’t be the same rules, because our town is half along the railroad tracks. That’s how they built towns out here.”

When KCRD tried on its own to redevelop that same site, it ran into more futility: An attempt to purchase the parcel fell through because of a tax lien. A property that could probably fit two houses remains uninhabitable and beyond KCRD’s reach.

Another rural anomaly: Ownership of some parcels remains within families for decades, even long after the original residents have died. Families — often out-of-state or absentee owners — hold the property, while the structure that once served as a home slowly disintegrates in the prairie wind.

Amy Johnson, volunteer chair of the Kit Carson Rural Development (KCRD) program, has been working to promote, beautify, and assist in the betterment of the town while facing many hurdles. Many abandoned houses in the area are owned by people who have left the area and when the KCRD contacts them about purchasing abandoned houses they often face owners reluctant to sell at a reasonable price. (Carl Payne, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Johnson has been trying for years to acquire one particular house that has been abandoned for more than three decades. Multiple family members owned it, and they couldn’t agree on selling it — until recently. It’s just another way that the real estate market differs from the urban Front Range. 

“Rural America is so unique,” Johnson says. “Anywhere In Denver, you’d be a fool not to sell a property that was sitting vacant that people would pay a lot of money for. In rural Colorado, that’s not the case.”

Why? It could be a Depression-instilled mindset: You hold on to what you’ve worked hard to acquire. It could just be simple family conflict. Or, as Dechant says, it could be that in this part of Colorado, the yearly property tax on that parcel runs a paltry $20, leaving little financial urgency to unload it.

Outside a large stucco house on a corner lot, a worker with a heavy-duty stump grinder finishes off some recently removed tree trunks in the back. Johnson slips inside the residence to present an example of yet another persistent problem with older-housing inventory in rural areas.

“So if you were a contractor,” she asks, gesturing toward the badly damaged husk of what once was a spacious, multilevel home, “what’s your first thought? Remodel?”

The deep, jagged scars that permeate the structure make that impossible. And that leads Johnson to asbestos, which saturates this structure — as it does many in the area — right down to its DNA. The house was in her husband’s family dating to 1928. Asbestos infects every window, the kitchen sink, the tile in the bathroom and bedrooms, and the outdoor stucco.

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With the cost of remediation, factoring in trucking the material to disposal stations on the Front Range, Johnson is seeking grant money to clean up the asbestos before moving to demolition and starting from scratch.

It’s not just a Kit Carson problem. CHFA’s Gomez notes that on listening tours that he has attended across the state, a recurring theme has been the need for rehab dollars to update existing housing stock in rural communities.

Eventually, Johnson envisions this dilapidated structure replaced by another 1,800-square-foot, four-bedroom, three-bath home like the one LouRae Rady closed on last week. But she’s still crunching the numbers.

“Nothing’s quick, right?”  she says. “You know, it takes awhile.”

The numbers alone are daunting. KCRD bought the house for $20,000. The bill for asbestos abatement was estimated at $23,000, plus $3,000 to $5,000 to get environmental clearance, topped off with $15,000 for demolition. That adds up to more than $60,000 to get Johnson an empty lot. 

“Then,” she continues, “you build a house at $200 per square foot, only to sell for $100 a square foot, because that’s what it appraises at. The math doesn’t work.”

Will the next generation have a home?

Even as working remotely takes a giant leap forward during the pandemic, nobody envisions Kit Carson — a shade more than a two-hour drive from metro Denver — as an idyllic rural sanctuary. 

What Dechant and Johnson are chasing is sustainability, the ability for Kit Carson to offer its kids at least the option of staying at or returning to the place where they grew up.

“It’s not like you have dreams of moving 100 people from Denver or Colorado Springs because it’s a nice way of life,” Dechant says. “For us, the whole goal is to have affordable housing for kids, so if they want to leave and come back, and they have a job, they have a place to live. And we’re even up against that.”

Adds Johnson: “I’ve heard of people in their early 20s wanting to move back, but there’s nowhere to move into. And I can’t imagine anyone wanting to take on these construction costs now. They’re insane.”

Resourcefulness and grants have carved out a viable housing future for people such as LouRae Rady, who might’ve moved on after her divorce except for the fact that her three girls were so invested in the only school they’ve ever attended. 

Her oldest, 18-year-old Cally, graduates this spring. Her middle girl, 15-year-old Payge, is finishing her first year of high school, and the youngest, 13-year-old Shay, is in junior high.

“I didn’t want to pull them from a school that they had grown up in,” Rady says. “It’s like a really small-family community type of deal, so we’re all very close and we just felt like it was home. So we decided we just were gonna stay.”

Maybe the model that put them in their home isn’t sustainable, as Johnson says. But she and Dechant will continue exploring every avenue they can find to solve the riddle. The clock is ticking for the seven teens who will graduate this year, and the ones who follow them

Although Cally’s interest in pediatric nursing seems likely to send her elsewhere for a career and Shay is still working on imagining her future, middle child Payge has been aiming toward becoming a veterinarian.

“So I see her coming back here, because we’re in need of veterinarians around our small towns,” Rady says. “We have to drive so far to just see one now, so I can see her coming back.”

New homes and renovations, with the goal of providing affordable housing and stemming the population decline, are pursued through the efforts of Kit Carson Rural Development. (Carl Payne, Special to The Colorado Sun)

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