SILVERTON — Julian Roberts is lighting a campfire on the outskirts of Silverton, wind whipping smoke toward the painted school bus where he lives with his fiancée. 

He’s been camping out for weeks in the picturesque town of 600, nestled in a caldera among southwest Colorado’s highest peaks. 

It was a choice at first. It was beautiful to wake up near a creek in the town where he grew up, before going to work at a deli and cleaning motel rooms.

Roberts was hoping to find a more permanent residence once Silverton’s peak tourism season ended around October, as cold weather starts to set in. But on an afternoon in late September, with the temperature close to 50 degrees and set to drop overnight, Roberts says he’d had little luck finding a rental he can afford on the $700 he makes a week.

“We’re at the point where people are having to pay $1,600 or $2,200 for the same space that was half (that) a year ago,” he says. 

There’s little affordable housing in the high-altitude town of Silverton.

Roughly half the houses in town sat vacant during part of the year in 2019, and places that are available are increasingly expensive, according to a recent assessment. Many homes are older and poorly insulated, costing hundreds of dollars a month to heat on top of rent.

Local officials are developing an attainable housing project, but for now workers have been pushed toward RVs, cars and other more desperate living situations, as a housing crunch that began years ago snowballed when urban dwellers moved to more remote locations during the pandemic. 

DeAnne Gallegos, executive director of the Silverton Chamber of Commerce, is candid about how some residents are living. 

“It’s glorified homelessness, let’s be honest,” she said. 

A housing crisis is playing out in the state’s resort communities and across southwest Colorado, but is exacerbated here by the remoteness of the once-booming mining town — the only municipality in Colorado’s least populated county. The one highway into Silverton cuts through treacherous — but stunning — mountain passes, and can be blocked by snow in the winter. There are no suburbs to commute from. Little land to annex.

“We’re completely landlocked, and we do not have bedroom communities, like Telluride has Norwood and Rico and Ridgway,” Gallegos said. “Real estate is skyrocketing and things are selling faster than they can be built.”

The median value of homes sold increased nearly 60% between 2018 and 2021, reaching $385,000 in San Juan County, where Silverton is the county seat. The number of homes priced at less than $250,000 declined by half in those years while short-term rental listings increased nearly 160%, according to the assessment.

Traffic moves along Greene Street in downtown Silverton Colo. Friday October 1, 2021. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The scarcity of housing has contributed to a labor shortage in the town, where workers often hold multiple jobs — running from a hotel to a brewery, or acting as server, cashier and bartender at once. It’s a frustrating position for Silverton, which Gallegos said has been seeing packed hotels, high sales tax revenue and an economic boom from the tourist activities it turned to after mining operations stopped in the 1990s.

“It’s like: Where’s the ceiling? Where’s the breaking point? How much are we leaving on the table?” Gallegos said. 

At the Grand Imperial Hotel, a regal and historic presence in Silverton’s downtown, owner Jim Harper helps out with laundry, answers phones and cleans toilets — partly out of necessity and partly because he believes the hotel is a family that runs best when everyone is cross-trained and can pitch in. He has converted an old storage area downstairs into employee housing, and recently “cannibalized” two guest rooms for workers to rent for $400 a month. 

He’s down to about 13 employees from 21 employees, and housekeepers average 15 to 25 hours of overtime a pay period, he said. 

“Silverton is in grave need, desperate need of affordable housing,” said Harper, who is also a town trustee. “To buy (a home) it is right around $450,000 — there’s nothing affordable about that.” 

It’s a similar story at Natalia’s 1912, the largest restaurant in town, where owner Bill Walko is down to seven employees instead of 18. He comes to the kitchen on historic Blair Street each day at 4:30 a.m. to start cooking — typically working through 12 recipes for the restaurant’s buffet line — and then will help set each table and run food out to diners. 

“Sixteen to 18 hours a day, seven days a week,” said Walko, 65. “Hard for an old man.” 

The restaurant now serves dinner only three nights a week. Line cooks have taken on dishwashing duties. Other workers act as “servers slash bartender slash hostess slash cashier,” and cycle through the adjoining coffee shop, Walko said. “Everybody has been cross-trained to do every job imaginable, so that we have maximum ability to cope.”

Traffic moves under a Welcome to Silverton sign along Greene Street near downtown Silverton Colo. Friday October 1, 2021. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Two-thirds of employees’ earnings come from overtime now, Walko said. He believes he could fill his 11 open positions if only there was housing. 

“There simply is nothing available,” he said.  

Adding to the crisis is the town’s seasonal economy, where many businesses make nearly all their income in the six months between when snow melts and starts falling again. 

Silverton establishments have long leaned on temporary workers to contend with the heavy tourist flow from May to October, but housing that workforce — many of them students and visitors from other states and countries — is a challenge. 

Two years ago, Walko began signing year-long leases so his workers had housing for the six months a year the restaurant is open. At $1,550 a month, it was expensive — but necessary, he said. 

The coronavirus threw an unexpected wrench in his ability to hire because the pandemic kept European workers from getting needed visas. Now, though, housing is keeping workers away. 

Walko said prospective employees have declined offers to work at the restaurant, where the dining room can become packed in minutes when the narrow gauge train from Durango pulls into the nearby Silverton station. Saloon-style writing in the restaurant’s window declares: “Large groups welcome.” 

Silverton’s two mountain resorts have employees that live in the town year-round, officials said. Silverton Mountain has helped its crew find housing in the winter, when there are only a few places available, said Jen Brill, co-owner of the Silverton Mountain ski area. Brill rents an employee house to workers “at a reasonable rate,” and staff members who have houses sometimes rent rooms to colleagues, she said.

Local officials say they are building about a dozen affordable homes and are contemplating zoning changes and other ways to bring more housing online. 

William Tookey, administrator for San Juan County, said the new Anvil Mountain development won’t be enough to meet the town’s needs. The homes — on a cleaned up smelter site — sit alongside 12 income-restricted apartments and a handful of lots that will be sold to residents at market rates. There’s already a waiting list. 

Local officials face difficulties buying land and extending water, sewer and other infrastructure to developments that creep up along the hillsides around Silverton. There’s a short building season in the region, which typically gets 380 inches of snow each winter. It’s costly to get building supplies across the high mountain passes — without guardrails — that connect Silverton to the outside world. 

“We’re an extremely small community. We have very limited resources, very limited capacity,” said Tookey, a lifelong resident of the county. 

He doesn’t think housing alone will address the labor shortage. 

“It’s two separate issues. Obviously they’re connected. If people don’t have a place to live, obviously they’re not going to stick around to work,” he said. 

Jordan Bierma, a town trustee and local teacher, is among the residents who will move into the town’s attainable housing development. 

The inside of Natalia’s Restaurant sits ready for customers on Blair Street in downtown Silverton Colo. Friday October 1, 2021. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Silverton resident Julian Roberts stands for a picture along Blair Street in downtown Silverton Colo. Friday October 1, 2021. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

His family of three currently rents a former boarding house on a block filled with short-term vacation rentals that visitors rotate through. 

Standing near where his new home will be built, Bierma said he’s eager to be in a subdivision with more families and permanent residents, a requirement to qualify for the houses, some of which also have a cap on how much their value can appreciate.

It’s one of the few houses in town that Bierma and his wife can afford. Bierma earns a little over $40,000 a year, close to the town’s median income, working at Silverton’s public school, where he teaches high school humanities, geometry and art, leads the agriculture elective, directs the school greenhouse, and coaches the soccer, climbing and skateboarding teams. His wife is a photographer and also works for the school. 

Some of Bierma’s students are living in nontraditional homes and campers, partly due to the housing market or the seasonality of their parents’ jobs, he said. 

“Winters are rough and you need a house to live in. Some of those kids may or may not be here in a month,” he said. “It’s just a really, really rough situation to be in.”

Roberts and his fiancée are camping less than a mile away from the Anvil housing development. 

They moved there over the summer — into a small bus belonging to Roberts’ mother, who tricked it out with a composting toilet and a solar panel that can charge electronics. The couple eats in a small trailer they own and — until the stove broke — cooked out under a canopy tent erected between the two vehicles. 

When it gets cold inside the lightly insulated bus, they dress their 11-month-old puppy, Uncle Buck, in a sweater. 

Roberts, 29, a theater major who dropped out of college, met his fiancée at Standing Rock, and remembers growing up in Silverton going to community potlucks, playing with his dog in the woods and squishing pennies on the railroad tracks. 

“I would love to stay and give a similar childhood to my own children,” he said.

Roberts’ fiancée manages a shop in town. Roberts typically works at the Canyon View Motel 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. — later if there’s maintenance work to be done or hot tubs that need cleaning. On the weekends, he works at a deli from 6 a.m. until around noon, takes a 15 to 30 minute break, then returns to the motel to clean rooms, he said. He’s running for the school board. 

In October, Roberts was able to move into the Canyon View. The details haven’t been worked out, but he doesn’t think the owner, who he’s known his whole life, will charge for the lodging. 

Clark Anderson, executive director of Community Builders, a nonprofit  helping Silverton develop a master plan, said the town and other parts of Colorado have a workforce housing market competing directly with that for high-end luxury homes. Prices overall have shot up in part due to short-term rentals, like through VRBO. Developers tend to cater to the affluent because they have investors or are trying to make a profit, he said. 

A housing development sits under construction off Reese Street, located on the southern end of the town of Silverton Colo. Friday October 1, 2021. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)
A mixture of houses and businesses can be seen in downtown Silverton Colo. from U.S. Hwy 550 south of town Friday October 1, 2021. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“You don’t find that many developers that are going to say, ‘You know, I know that houses are selling for $1 million here but I want to really focus on building $400,000 homes,’” Anderson said. 

The trend has been building for years, as communities across the West have failed to keep pace with housing demand, after overbuilding in the past. 

Harper, whose family owns the Grand Imperial Hotel and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, understands why there’s so much demand for housing.  

“We live and work in a postcard and we’re blessed — those select few of us that get to live here,” he said.

Shannon Najmabadi covered rural affairs and the rural economy for The Colorado Sun from 2021-2023.