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MANASSA — Mark Manzanares’ family had lived in an adobe brick house built by his father and uncle in the 1930s, but his relatives abandoned it in 1998, at a time of widespread poverty and limited job opportunities in the San Luis Valley.

Manzanares and his mother returned in 2019, hoping to live again in Manassa, the only place that had ever felt like home. 

But when they returned, mice, skunks, bats and spiders had taken over the family home. The house was full of junk left behind 20 years before, and there were holes in the walls. Many dead animals had decayed underneath the structure and the smell of rot permeated the house.

“We couldn’t come into the house for a full year,” Manzanares said during an interview in early June from the living room of the home. “At 84, taking on a challenge like this, most people wouldn’t even think of doing it,” he said, looking at his mother, Aurora Gonzales. 

Aurora Gonzales, 84, stands in the backyard of the home she shares with her son, Mark Manzanares. After returning to the valley, Manzanares and Gonzales lived in a small camper and shed in the backyard for a year until they could restore and clean out the house to make it livable again. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Manzanares’ and Gonzales’ home was abandoned for about 20 years. The two use a 1920s wooden stove to cook and would previously heat the kitchen and living room with it during winter months. Manzanares and Gonzales, who sometimes can barely afford food, say a typical dinner consists of beans, pork, rice, and salad.

Work to rehabilitate the house is still underway, but Manzanares and his mother are now receiving help from several San Luis Valley organizations that are trying to identify abandoned homes in the region and make them habitable again. 

The San Luis Valley is vast and sparsely populated, and yet, short about 1,800 housing units. The coalition is working to reduce the problem by purchasing or renovating some of the 150 abandoned homes they’ve identified so far in the valley, making them available to low-income families and people who are homeless. In some cases, the homes will be restored for the people who abandoned them when upkeep became too expensive. 

“When you go through a neighborhood, like Antonito, for instance, if you were on the east side of the highway, every other home seems to be abandoned as you’re driving through,” said Dawn Melgares, executive director of the San Luis Valley Housing Coalition, an affordable housing nonprofit.

“And when that community needs 30 new homes, and they have 20 just in one neighborhood that are abandoned, those could be quick victories if you could purchase them and get the funding to rehab them,” she said. “The infrastructure is already there. … So, finding those quick victories was important to us.”

Abandoned buildings on Main St. of Antonito (pop. 647) are seen on June 7. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
About 23% of the population of Conejos County live below the poverty line.

Progress is slowly being made. Since 2019, the San Luis Valley Housing Coalition and the Energy Resource Center have used $104,000 in grants from the Colorado Division of Housing to help rehab three homes for homeowners who had come back to abandoned homes or purchased abandoned homes with hopes of making them livable again. Nine projects to add hundreds of affordable houses and apartments across the valley are already underway.

Megares said the coalition hopes to reduce the 1,800-home demand by 20% to 30% within the next five years.

A mother and son’s story

The story of Mark Manzanares and Aurora Gonzales is just one story among many that explains the need for the abandoned homes rehab initiative.

Some families abandoned their homes because they could no longer afford the mortgage, or they found better quality of life elsewhere in Colorado, or across the country. Structural problems with some of the houses motivated some people to move on, opting for low-income housing elsewhere because they could not afford the repairs.

“So they just leave, and as long as they’re paying the property tax, there’s no questions asked,” said Lupita Garcia, a lifelong San Luis Valley resident, and business office manager for the Energy Resource Center, which helps to keep homes of income-qualified Coloradans safe, warm and energy efficient.

Some of the poorest counties in the state are in the San Luis Valley. In Costilla, Conejos and Saguache counties many people live off the grid without electricity or running water. Some people live in travel trailers or TuffSheds, which are typically used to store goods such as lawn mowers and other outdoor items. 

A trailer home is seen in Costilla County near Garcia. Community leaders say people in the valley often buy plots of deserted land for low cost online or live in travel trailers and recreational vehicles. Many who can’t afford to live near their jobs must commute long distances, or live closer to their jobs but in subpar conditions, according to a San Luis Valleywide Needs Assessment. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Over the last 20 years, cities like Alamosa have remained a hub for jobs and growth, while people are moving away from other towns, including Romeo, which are tiny but have large numbers of abandoned homes, Garcia said.

Since the last recession, wages have remained flat, few new homes have been built and housing costs have risen. Half of renters, and a quarter of homeowners, are considered “rent or mortgage burdened,” spending more than 30% of their income on housing. Many people who can’t afford to live in the community where their jobs are located are forced to commute long distances or live close to their jobs in subpar conditions, according to a San Luis Valleywide Needs Assessment, commissioned by the San Luis Valley Housing Coalition, the SLV Housing Network and Williford LLC, an affordable housing consultant.

The assessment found that 31% of households have zero workers, compared with about 18% statewide. In the San Luis Valley, 30% of homes are abandoned, compared with 10% of abandoned homes statewide, according to the assessment. There have been no affordable housing units built in the San Luis Valley since 2000, Garcia said.

A home is seen on June 6 in Costilla County near Garcia. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
30% of homes in the Valley are abandoned, compared with 10% of abandoned homes statewide.

“You would walk into one of these houses, and you would be so surprised at how people are living,” she said of visiting people trying to reclaim houses that had been abandoned for years. “When you see these homes, it just breaks your heart to know that somebody is living that way.”

To meet the dire need for affordable housing in the region, Garcia and other members of the San Luis Valley Housing Network are taking on a new role. They’re finding abandoned homes, compiling a list of those addresses, locating the owners, applying for funding to purchase and renovate the homes and then housing people who need a place to live. 

Four months ago, a Colorado-based foundation that asked the San Luis Valley Housing Coalition not to publicly share its name started to help with the planning process for funding for the identification and rehabilitation of abandoned homes.

There have been no affordable housing units built in the San Luis Valley since 2000

But the San Luis Valley Housing Network, leading the charge, still needs help from grants and other philanthropic foundations to purchase these abandoned homes and schools and do renovations. The Colorado Health Foundation was the biggest funder of the housing study that spurred nine projects to add hundreds affordable housing units across the valley.

The task of finding and rehabbing abandoned structures is not easy. A consultant working with the group drives street by street across the sprawling valley, looking for homes that appear abandoned, assessing whether the homes are salvageable or whether they should be demolished to make way for future development. 

The consultant has already counted more than 150 abandoned homes in 12 communities she’s scoured and she has three more communities to search. The list of abandoned homes, their owners and their addresses, should be complete by September, Melgares said.

Abandoned homes are seen in Costilla County near Garcia. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Data about the ownership of homes is part of county assessors’ public records. But coalition members also are leaning on building inspectors and utility companies to track down information that will help them make contact with owners who appear to be letting their vacant homes fall into disrepair.

The group is also trying to create community awareness about the initiative by working to streamline the process and by improving relationships with county assessors, while improving outreach to the community to create awareness about the initiative such as by sharing information about it through social media marketing and community events. Their hope is that funders will be more likely to grant money to the project’s goals and that homeowners will be more willing to donate their abandoned homes to people in need, or offer the homes up for a price cheaper than the actual value. 

You would walk into one of these houses, and you would be so surprised at how people are living.

— Lupita Garcia, business office manager for the Energy Resource Center

Finding grants to purchase or renovate the homes has been challenging. Some grants have restrictions on how the money can be spent. Garcia has identified several streams of funding for individual projects, and has worked with state agencies and nonprofits, depending on the demands.

The group is trying to remain flexible in its work. It will purchase an abandoned home and rehab it to make way for other local people who need housing. Or the group may help find funding for people who can’t otherwise afford to buy and rehab an abandoned home. The group is also working to find funds to help people who want to reclaim their abandoned home as a primary residence, or rent it, but can’t afford the repairs.

Some of the abandoned homes are dilapidated and need a lot of construction work to become habitable again. But Garcia said others need only a few repairs, such as new window panes or a water heater replacement. 

“As people come in, they seem to tell us everything that’s going on in life for them,” she said. “And so we just listen to their stories, and I can see what programs I can put them through, where they live and what the issues are.”

Maria Bornn’s family abandoned their home in San Luis after it became too difficult and too expensive to maintain. But the longer the home was unoccupied, the more the family worried about its longevity.

Maria Bornn, 71, who had been homeless in California, moved into her family’s Colorado abandoned home just over a year ago. When she arrived, it was in poor condition, ridden with black mold, insects, and sunken-in floors. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
The interior of Bornn’s home is seen in San Luis on June 6.

Bornn, who had been homeless in California, last year decided to drive to Colorado to try to rescue the one-bedroom house. When she arrived, there were signs that people had been squatting there. The floors were “sunken in” and appeared to be rotting. There was black mold too, she said, and the house was infested with mice and their droppings, and stink bugs. Many of the windows were cracked, and a frigid draft made it hard to live there during the winter. Bornn lived in her truck outside of the house until there was a clean place where she could sleep, she said.

“It took a lot of sacrifice to clean,” she said in the kitchen of the home in early June. “You have to have the right attitude and the right mindset.”

The Energy Resource Center has installed a new heating system, a water heater, a new refrigerator, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and insulation in the walls and attic to keep the house warm. A special grant also helped Bornn install new storm windows, Garcia said.

After all the work she and human service organizations have done to make the house habitable again, Bornn, 71, says there’s still a long way to go but that she wants to stay in the house long term. “You learn how to live with what you’ve got.”

A corner of Bornn’s home in San Luis. Many people living in Costilla, Conejos and Saguache counties live off the grid without electricity or running water. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

A plan to meet the need

A small group of real estate agents and human service and housing agency leaders came together in 2019 to develop solutions to two key issues troubling the San Luis Valley: low wages and a lack of quality, affordable housing. 

They commissioned a $250,000 housing market study and action plan for the entire San Luis Valley. The study assessed the current housing stock and housing needs for each county, and includes a deep dive in 15 smaller communities that have never been studied or have not had studies conducted in the past decade.

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At the early stages of their research, the coalition learned about problems in mobile home parks, where low-income people were illegally evicted and left homeless. In one case, a mobile park landlord would remove appliances, like furnaces, that were installed by the Energy Resource Center, and then ask the tenant to apply for another one, Garcia said. Each time someone moved in or out, the landlord would remove the furnace, sell it and make a profit, she added. Many people living in the mobile home community were immigrants making low wages, she said. 

The idea to rehab abandoned homes followed the housing study. 

“There’s other communities trying to figure out how they can duplicate this work,” Melgares said. “And there’s a case study being written about what we’ve done here, and we’re hoping others can learn from our failures and our successes, but also realize that it will be different for their community, because every community is different.” 

Maria Bornn poses for a portrait in her family’s old home in San Luis which she returned to in the spring of 2021. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Since the housing study was completed, nine affordable housing projects have gotten underway in the San Luis Valley, including the valleywide abandoned homes initiative. 

In the San Luis Valley, 30% of homes are abandoned, compared with 10% statewide

The housing coalition is purchasing a complex in Creede that will be renovated into almost 20 affordable housing units within the next three to four years. The town has only market-rate housing available, Melgares said.

A group in La Jara is working to build additional rental units there. A project in Del Norte will create a land trust to help people become homeowners. La Puente Homeless Shelter is working to build four accessible housing units in Alamosa. An effort is in the works in San Luis to turn a bank, the oldest building there, into housing. Moffat Consolidated School District is planning to build additional teacher housing. Saguache Housing Authority is building housing complexes and acquiring land in Saguache and Crestone. And the San Luis Valley Housing Coalition said it will soon purchase an abandoned school in Alamosa that will turn into dozens of affordable housing units in 2024.

Rehabbing an abandoned school

Rehabbing the abandoned Boyd Elementary School in Alamosa represents one of the biggest projects so far to house people in the valley in a creative way, Melgares said. The 80-year-old building has gone unused since the human service organization Rocky Mountain SER shut down there just over a year ago. 

The San Luis Valley Housing Coalition aims to purchase Boyd Elementary, an 80-year-old school building in Alamosa, for $2.1 million by the end of 2022. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The San Luis Valley Housing Coalition is under contract to purchase the sprawling, red-brick building for $2.1 million and hopes to close in November. The purchase of the school is fully funded by the Colorado Division of Housing and renovations will be funded by grants, Melgares said. 

The goal is to create 40 housing units on the property. Classrooms will be converted to 12 to 14 studios and one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments. An additional 29 units will be in new buildings at the rear of the school, designed to look like two-story houses. 

The redevelopment also may leave room on the ground floor for nonprofit Rocky Mountain SER’s early childhood education program.

Depending on grant funding, units at Boyd will cost $650 monthly for a one-bedroom, $775 for a two-bedroom, and $850 for a three-bedroom. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
The interior of Boyd Elementary is seen on June 7 in Alamosa.

Melgares said the goal is to create housing with rents affordable to people earning no more than 60% of the area median income. 

Under that arrangement, a one-bedroom would cost $600 to $650 per month, a two-bedroom would cost $700 to $750 per month and a three-bedroom would cost about $850 per month. For comparison, a typical one-bedroom in the area costs almost $900 per month, a two-bedroom ranges from about $900 to $1,200 and a three-bedroom costs about $1,400 per month in Alamosa, Melgares said.

The new housing is desperately needed. The housing study determined Alamosa needs more than 500 units in five years to meet the demand. Of those, half should be affordable units, according to the study.

“We’re excited,” Melgares said in early June during an interview from inside the cavernous school, which occupies an entire city block across from Boyd Park. “It’s going to be a big project and it’s going to be a long project. But when it’s all said and done, it’s going to be a great accomplishment.”

The housing group had considered buying vacant land near a Pepsi plant and an abandoned courthouse, both in Alamosa, before it settled on the 36,000-square-foot school. The school building, which was in foreclosure, seemed like the best option, Melgares said. The current owners, who live in Alamosa, shared the vision of creating affordable housing, while maintaining a crucial early childhood education program in the historic building, she said. 

Purchasing an abandoned school and turning it into housing is a newer concept to funders, which can make the grant application process even more difficult for community leaders in need of financial support, Melgares said. But as more communities convert schools, hotels and other empty buildings to make a dent in the affordable housing crisis, local leaders are becoming more hopeful that more funders will understand the need and come onboard to help with these efforts. 

Interiors of Boyd Elementary are seen on June 7 in Alamosa.

Developers tend to drift to communities where they can make more money building higher priced housing. But Melgares thinks there are growing numbers of equally lucrative opportunities in the San Luis Valley. The housing coalition is uploading housing studies from each of the municipalities they examined with the number of housing units needed in each community, hoping to lure builders. 

The town of Center, for example, needs 60 to 100 more units within the next five years. Blanca and Fort Garland combined need about 20 units within the same timeframe, according to the housing study.

A long road ahead

When Garcia first visited Mark Manzanares and Aurora Gonzales, they were using a tiny plug-in hot plate to cook. The windows were old and broken and created a draft. The home had no heat, which was concerning to Garcia, who said temperatures can drop to 30 below zero in the San Luis Valley, making it one of coldest regions in the U.S.

The Housing Coalition and The Energy Resource Center have helped with flooring repairs and the installation of new windows, a bathroom and kitchen, and a septic system. The mother and son use a 1920s wood stove for cooking. Recently, the ERC installed an energy-efficient heating system.

Manassa doesn’t look much different today than it did when Manzanares’ family left in 1998. The closest jobs are about 25 miles away and many people in town don’t have running water.

Manzanares shows a document with a model of a leach bed, or septic drain field, that he plans to have engineered as required by Conejos County code. Based on soil tests, Manzanares must build a special leach field for the home but has yet to gather enough funds to hire a local contractor. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Manzanares and Gonzales use a port-a-potty in their backyard. Manzanares recalled one winter night when the port-a-potty tipped over amid high winds with his 84-year-old mother inside of it.

People in rural communities in the San Luis Valley have wells and septic systems on their properties. City water can be expensive for residents who receive it, Garcia said. Melgares said the water systems in some towns don’t have the capacity to serve all of the people who live there.

When Manzanares and Gonzales came home to work on the one-bedroom house, they lived out back in a shed and a camper. Sometimes they drive almost 150 miles to a cousin’s house in Pueblo to shower. Sometimes they pay $60 to shower at a motel closer to home.

An electrician by trade, Manzanares makes ends meet by doing odd jobs while working on his own home, which will soon have a second bedroom. Each week, he travels almost 25 miles to Alamosa to buy 25 gallons of clean drinking water. As gas prices rise, those trips are occurring less frequently, he said.

Manzanares has done most of the hard labor work on the home, which once led him to a two-week hospital stay after he developed pneumonia in both lungs from breathing in dust and other airborne toxins. 

The house has a well. The septic system required by Conejos County code is partially complete, but adding a leach field to make it functional will cost $15,000. Neither can be hooked up until plumbing inside the house is done.

With the help of multiple several San Luis Valley organizations, Manzanares and Gonzales are working to restore their adobe brick home to a habitable condition. “Every day we work on it,” Manzanares said.

Until then, he will continue to haul water and a port-a-potty will remain on the property. This worries Manzanares. The temporary toilet once blew over when his mother was inside it during high winds, he said. 

The San Luis Valley Housing Coalition has funding to replace the indoor plumbing and will connect the house to the well and, when it is complete, to the septic system. Without it, the renovation project will fail, Manzanares said.

 “We want to finish this project and we want to be an inspiration to other people who have the same idea, the same dream, and the same need, so that they won’t be afraid to do it,” Manzanares said, noting how grateful he is for the help from the housing coalition. “Every day we work on it. To be able to do this with my mom at her old age is an honor.”

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Equity Reporter Denver Tatiana Flowers is the equity and general assignment reporter for the Colorado Sun and her work is funded by a grant from the Colorado Trust. She has covered crime and courts, plus education and health in Colorado, Connecticut, Israel and Morocco....