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JIll Voyles and her husband Brendan McClarney pack up their and their three daughters' belongings in their rental home in Crested Butte South in preparation to move on May 24, 2021. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Jill Voyles knew the first year would not be easy. But it would be worth it for her and husband, Brendan McClarney, to move their three daughters to Crested Butte from St. Louis, Missouri.

Then right after they arrived last spring, everything shut down. McClarney’s job as a construction project manager evaporated. So did Voyles’ work as a wellness professional. McClarney worked at a restaurant for a while but went back to St. Louis for work, sending his family money to pay rent in the Gunnison County resort town. Then their landlord told them he was moving into the home they were renting.  

They found a temporary place for a few weeks but Voyles and McClarney are making back-up plans to move their family into tents.

“I would never have thought this could happen. Right before the pandemic I was planning to open a studio and my business was thriving. We came here to protect our kids from what was going on in the big city, where we had gunshots just a couple blocks from our house,” Voyles said. “I knew it would be hard to make it work here but I never imagined it would be this hard.”

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About 70% of their earnings go toward rent right now. Maybe if they move into tents for the summer they can save enough to pay the security deposit, first and last month’s rent on a place for the fall and winter. 

“Maybe. We are competing with people who can buy anything,” Voyles said. “How can you support the foundation of the town if workers are leaving because they can’t afford to be here? There’s a growing separation right now. Homeowners need us for all their services and we need a decent quality of life with places to live.” 

As buyers continue to snatch up homes across Colorado, an unprecedented housing crisis is unfolding. Workers are losing their rental homes as new owners or investors pay record prices  move in or convert them to their work-from-anywhere homes or short-term vacation investment homes. At least two communities are pondering radical strategies to slow the rapid shifts in housing that many see threatening the vitality and even existence of communities that rely on armies of workers.

In Frisco, leaders are pondering a first-ever official emergency declaration as they liken the unfolding housing crisis to a devastating flood or wildfire. In Crested Butte, workers are whispering about a strike in the middle of the busy summer season.

“An emergency that is threatening our lifestyles.”

Brianne Snow provided groceries to 65 families who visited her Family and Intercultural Resource Center’s food pantry in Silverthorne on Wednesday. Many of them asked for supplies that could last the week in their car. 

“They were there for food, but they were desperate for housing,” said the executive director of the Summit County center. “There is nowhere for them to go. They are living with their families in their cars at trailheads and they are really scared. It is just so devastating.”

The resource center has given local families more than $2.5 million in rent assistance in the last year and another $500,000 for food. It’s not enough.

“This is a bigger problem than just affordability. We do have enough homes to put people in,” Snow said. “We wanted a diverse economy with these wealthier, work-from-anywhere residents. Well now we have one. And now we can’t support it.”

The lack of attainable housing has reached crisis levels in Colorado’s high country. 

“It is an emergency that is threatening our lifestyles, our local businesses and our economy,” said Frisco Mayor Hunter Mortensen. “It’s the same as if we are threatened by flood or fire.”

Frisco Mayor Hunter Mortenson walks with his dog, Huckleberry, in a workforce housing neighborhood on Monday, May 24, 2021, in Frisco, CO. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Mortensen is pushing his town council to approve Colorado’s first official emergency declaration around housing. The formal declaration — a mechanism typically used for natural disasters, or, more recently, a pandemic — could possibly open avenues for federal funding as well as streamline Frisco’s budget policies to allow for speedy re-allocations of funds toward housing. (Colorado’s Democrat lawmakers on Monday ranked affordable housing among the top three priorities in their plan for spending $3.8 billion in federal coronavirus stimulus money given to Colorado, with as much as $150 million heading toward housing projects in the next month.)

“Everyone in Colorado is complaining about this problem. Business owners. Employers. Employees. Visitors. Local governments. Everyone. And they all put it back on the government to find a way to fix it,” Mortsensen said. “It’s time to fill the sandbags for the coming flood and the government cannot do that alone. We need a community wide effort and an emergency declaration is the first step in getting everyone we can to help.”

Occupy Crested Butte?

Will Dujardin moved to Crested Butte in 2008 to be a ski coach. He found a house in town to rent and three-and-a-half years ago won a seat on the Crested Butte Town Council, promising to advocate for affordable housing. 

His landlord wants to move back into the house to renovate for a sale. 

He’s looking for a temporary place to rent with his girlfriend somewhere in town, but he’s unsure about his long-term viability in a community where home prices have set records every month so far this year, reaching an average price of $1.4 million. 

“It just doesn’t seem financially responsible for me to even try to stay here long-term,” he said as he prepped a house for a paint job. “I can’t afford to put myself at that kind of risk.”

Crested Butte councilman Will Dujardin finishes up a painting job on the outskirts of town on May 22, 2021. Dujardin is an outspoken advocate on the need for affordable housing in this ski resort and tourist town. The skyrocketing cost of homes in Crested Butte and nearby Gunnison combined with rental properties being turned into short term rentals has caused a housing crisis for local working people. Some restaurants in the towns are limiting hours or closing because of a labor shortage. There are many jobs but no places for the people who work them to live. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Dujardin’s work on the council includes helping create a short-term rental tax to support more affordable housing. He supports plans for a 156-unit affordable housing complex — whittled down from 240 units after years of negotiations between the developer and the town — that is mired in contention over the size of the project’s parking lot. 

That high-density apartment project wasn’t ideal, he said, but it’s something. He sees a big gap in options for renters who fall pretty close to the region’s median income but are far away from being able to afford market prices in a town where the median price is more than $1.4 million and climbing rapidly. 

But the problem, he said, is more about availability than affordability. People of just about all incomes are fighting for spots to live in the East River Valley.

Dujardin supports some radical moves. He advocates for a tax on vacation homes that are left empty for most of the year. Maybe that additional tax revenue could help local workers cover skyrocketing rents or pay a down payment on a home, he said. Whatever the plan, it needs to happen fast, he said, noting that since he joined the town council, the price for a typical home in the town has more than doubled. 

He supports the idea of a local strike — which would involve workers walking out of local businesses for a day or even longer at the height of the busy summer season in July — but he worries about impacts on small business owners. 

“These are our neighbors and friends and people in similar boats and they are feeling this struggle too,” he said. “But I don’t know how to scream louder to local leaders here that we are not doing enough about this crisis.”

In addition to marches, protests, letter-writing campaigns and showing up at council meetings to voice concerns about housing, Dujardin wonders about a tent city in downtown, as in Occupy Crested Butte. 

“We don’t want people to not be able to work and we don’t want our fellow citizens to suffer anymore. We need to do something. We need to do something right now.”

An “empty home fee” on vacant homes

Housing doesn’t just require government help. Communities need to come together and champion housing as an existential issue, said Eric Rankin, the co-owner of Butte Bagels in Crested Butte.

Later this week, Rankin is hosting a gathering of local workers and business owners like himself to stir a rallying cry around the lack of housing. One idea being kicked around in Crested Butte is a worker strike. Maybe for a day. Maybe even for a week.

Rankin said a strike will only work if 80% of businesses are on board and willing to lose revenue. Most employers and business owners in town are not willing to close their shops, he said. There seems to be more local support for an “empty home fee,” which would tax second homeowners who leave their mansions in town unoccupied except for a few weeks a year.

“It’s sad because the only thing they are building in this town right now are mega-mansions. We don’t want to alienate those owners but if they want to be a bigger part of this community, we need their help to create a housing fund,” Rankin said as he prepared lunches for waiting customers at Butte Bagels. 

With tears in her eyes, Jill Voyles talks about how her daughters want she and her husband, Brendan McClarney, to find a “forever” home. The family is packing to leave their rental home in Crested Butte South in preparation to move on May 24, 2021. They have been searching for a place to live and may have to resort to camping out with their three daughters. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Rankin has lost employees due to a lack of housing. A worker strike could show visitors, second-homeowners and local leaders what Crested Butte could look like in five years when workers can’t live in the town, he said. 

“I wonder if people really are grasping that,” Rankin said. “We need our community — really every community across Colorado — to rise up and gather together and take care of this. This isn’t a fight for my business, or my town. Colorado as a state could be in trouble here.”

Hope in new legislation

The housing crisis in Colorado’s mountain communities is not new. But the last year’s real estate frenzy has decimated an already meager supply of homes traditionally occupied by working locals. 

The decades-long lack of affordable housing became a critical issue as early as 1994, when Telluride town leaders passed a law that required developers to build affordable housing for some of the new workers their projects would create. After a developer sued, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that forcing developers to build units for renting below market rates was a form of rent control prohibited by state law in 1981. 

Kevin Bommer, the executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, said that the 2000 Colorado Supreme Court decision set the stage for today’s housing crisis in small towns. 

“It has allowed a dearth of new construction with municipalities virtually powerless to ensure people who work in the community had a place to live without a long commute,” said Bommer, who hopes the passage of legislation that reverses that decision and allows local government more voice in developing affordable homes can ease the current crisis. 

Bommer said the new legislation, House Bill 1117, which the Colorado Municipal League helped draft and lawmakers approved last week, “will effectively wipe out that awful court decision … and we should start seeing more new affordable rental units in places where developers have not wanted to build them.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors,...