NORWOOD — Just after Thanksgiving, Pedro and Maria Jorge were ready to move.
The Telluride workers from Guatemala were living in a relative’s tiny apartment, crammed into a single bedroom with their 10-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter and an infant. They quietly came home to the third-floor unit when it was dark and left early, hoping to avoid scrutiny that might land their uncle in trouble. The kids could not play outside.
Jorge had recently lost his restaurant job and the house that came with it. He landed another restaurant job quickly. As did Maria. But housing was elusive.
After several months wedged into a single bedroom, the family was strained. So was the uncle who feared he would be evicted if the apartment manager discovered the extra tenants.
Last fall Pedro and Maria got a break. They won a lottery for a deed-restricted, three-bedroom, factory-built home in Norwood. The couple spent months navigating a complex loan process — made even more challenging due to their lack of financial paperwork and tentative grasp of English — and waiting through inevitable construction delays.
A few weeks before Christmas, their inflatable mattresses were stacked neatly along the wall. Clothes were piled in the corners. The baby girl was crying and Maria was bouncing and shushing.
They didn’t really want to be talking with a visitor. They were crushed to hear construction of their new home was delayed again by a few months.
“We don’t have three more months. It’s not possible to stay here,” Pedro said in December when he learned his new home, which was supposed to be ready by September and then by Christmas, might not be ready until the end of March. “We can’t wait too long. If they see us, we’re going to get in trouble and my uncle, too. That’s why we are hiding here.”
The Housing Lottery
The Colorado Sun is following the owners, developer and builders of 24 affordable homes in Norwood’s new Pinion Park community.
The Jorge family spent the first part of this year in a motel, waiting for their dream home. In May they were the first to move into Norwood’s Pinion Park, a new community of modular homes built by a nonprofit developer who hopes to forge a unique model to create attainable housing in Colorado’s high country.
Last month, Pedro and Maria prepared a meal in their new home, with sheets for curtains and temporary furniture. They were grinning as their son and daughter raced in and out between laps around the neighborhood on their scooters.
“The truth is that it was worth waiting for this house. … It ended up the way we wanted,” Pedro said. “It was a very good decision and I know it’s been difficult, but everything can be achieved if you keep working at it.”
The Pinion Park project was the first by the nonprofit developer Rural Homes. The offshoot of the Telluride Foundation helped persuade San Miguel County to donate the acreage for the 24 homes. The effort included grants and low-interest loans from major philanthropic groups that have identified housing as a critical health issue facing Coloradans. The developer negotiated low-interest loans for local workers whose salaries do not come close to affording the price of homes around Telluride.
The combination of grants, philanthropy, modular homes designed in a Buena Vista factory and no short order of patience by the builders and homebuyers has yielded a model for housing local workers in mountain communities where home prices have more than doubled in recent years.
“If only they had shared more information with us.”
Jennie Thomas was spending $1,800 a month on rent for a home on the edge of Norwood, where she works in both Norwood Public Schools and West End Public Schools. Her landlord was a Telluride local who bought the place years ago. Now she’s in a deed-restricted three-bedroom, three-bath home she purchased in Pinion Park for $352,500.
The months of delays almost killed Thomas’ deal. The 2.5% mortgage rate she had locked in almost disappeared as construction delays pushed back her move-in date more than six months. When the date to finalize her loan approached, her school-counselor income had increased slightly and she ended up $1,000 past the adjusted median income threshold to qualify for her low-interest loan. It almost all collapsed on the day before she was scheduled to sign the papers.
But it worked out in a flurry of last-minute calls. But the hassles have continued. She’s compiled a long list of repairs and tasks for the builder.
“I expected this to be a finished home,” she said, detailing electrical issues, poor water drainage, massive mud pits, paint splatters, unpainted walls, unfinished carpentry and awnings over side doors that were part of the architectural drawings but not the finished home. “What they are delivering is not necessarily a $352,000 home. I am a single mom trying to buy something that didn’t need any work. That’s what I was sold, but it’s not what I got.”
Thomas has an equally long list of ways the developers and builders can do a better job as they open homes in Ridgway and Ouray later this summer and fall. At the top of the list: better communication.
“Look, I’m super grateful and I look forward to living here for a long time, but I’m disappointed with the lack of communication and how many things are unfinished in their so-called turnkey houses,” said the social worker whose job is to give voice to the underserved and is taking her mission into her new community. “They kept us in the dark for so long. If only they had shared more information with us and let us know what was working, what was not working and what was causing the delays, I think we all would have been more understanding.”
“We are smiling a lot.”
Rachel Cook and Benji Charleston recently attended a community meeting at the Lone Cone library next door to their new home where OneEnergy Renewables discussed the Washington company’s controversial plan to develop a large solar project on about 1,000 acres outside town.
“It was one of the coolest things we’ve ever been to,” said Charleston, who is 53. “It felt so cool to be part of the community and on the same team as everyone there. It was rad, just the energy that was there.”
For years, Charleston and Cook have stood on the sidelines of discussions about their valley. They lived in a rental home in Placerville far from their work in Telluride. Sure they had opinions about policies and plans, but they never felt that connection or grounding that anchored their voice. That’s changed since they moved into Pinion Park last month.
“We are part of this place now. It’s so cool to hear our neighbors speaking so passionately, and now we can be a part of that passion,” Charleston said.
When they lived in the cabin in Placerville, they never really met any neighbors, Cook said. Now they are meeting neighbors daily. Charleston and his twins often skateboard over to the park in Norwood, where town officials recently installed their favorite features collected from the under-renovation skatepark in Telluride.
“We are smiling a lot,” Charleston said.
Marcus Kirkwood’s loan approval lapsed during the construction delay, but he was able to find a new lender who helped him buy his first home. A year ago he had a lease-to-buy agreement with a landlord in Telluride who died and the place was sold.
“There were a few times where I doubted I would ever own a place out here,” he said.
He’s not yet compiled a punch list of repairs for his new place. He’s got buddies coming by soon to help him build a wraparound deck on the back of his home. Kirkwood has been riding his dirt bike out of his driveway and recently floated the San Miguel River not far from his house.
“Look out that window. That’s Lone Cone, right there,” he said, falling into a plush couch in his new three-bedroom home. “It’s the bomb, dude.”
Kirkwood fired up Tiger Woods PGA Tour on his flat screen that takes up an entire wall. He asked a visitor to play and tossed over a controller. He’s happy in Norwood.
“This is one of those communities where everybody waves. It’s cool here,” he said, twisting on the couch to spin his virtual drive.
Kirkwood hasn’t waded into the solar farm issue. He’s looking forward to learning a bit more.
“It felt like I didn’t have much say so in Telluride,” said the long-term Telluride hotel manager who moonlights as a DJ. “It seems like we can say something — and actually do something — here in Norwood.”
He’s pals with local politicians who are asking him to run for office in Norwood. He’s not sure he wants to dive in that deep just yet.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s a cool place. I don’t catch very many negative vibes out here.”
Charleston spent a recent weekend raking the dirt around his house, getting ready for landscapers. There’s a spot set aside for planters and maybe a flagstone patio.
“All the stuff we wanted to do in our rental houses but couldn’t,” he said, raking a level spot for a gravel walkway.
Cook and Charleston marvel at their sudden increase in space, with the 13-year-old twins, Maddie and Max, in their own rooms, with their own televisions. The internet is blazing fast. Their electric bill has dropped from more than $500 a month in that drafty cabin by the river to $119 a month, thanks to the solar panels installed on the roof. They love the lofty ceilings. They are planning splashes of colorful art on the walls. They can’t wait for the grass to start growing. Their cats, Sushi and Boobs, have several sunny spots to lounge.
They’ve got a growing punch list for the builder as well. Their driveway is broken where the tractor delivered the shed. And that shed is dented with a broken window. They also are miffed that there’s no roof over their side door.
“We know we are the guinea pigs here,” Charleston said. “But the guinea pigs are not done. I hope they don’t forget us out here.”
Knowing they were pioneer buyers for a new model of home construction makes their concerns even more important, Cook said.
“They need to know so the next time they do better,” she said. “Yeah the delays were very frustrating and we tried to remain grateful and humble though the process but toward the end it was definitely straining. I hope our voices will continue to be heard in this process as it moves to other locations.”
Modular communities underway in Ridgway, Ouray
These are the first affordable homes Paul Major has ever built. He’s promising every home’s punch list will be addressed soon. His landscaping crews are planting grass, and carpenters are moving through each home.
Pinion Park was the first large order of modular homes delivered by the Fading West factory. It was the first modular community homebuilder Scott Stryker orchestrated. There are plenty of lessons coming out of Norwood for the developer, the builder and the factory.
First and foremost: Do not build through the winter. The snow — and then the mud — stalled what was supposed to be a speedy assembly process. And second: Major will not sell homes a year before they are ready. When you do that for renters, they tell their landlords a move-out date and any delays send rippling impacts through multiple households.
“We have to find a better balance between the desperation that the buyers feel to get into their new homes and our process,” Major said. “We should not build in the winter. We can’t have people moving in when it’s so muddy. We need to finish punch lists before people move in. As a developer we are trying to meet a desperate need for housing and we wanted to get people in the door. We need to better balance all that.”
Major just took shipment of seven of the 14 homes planned for Ridgway, with the Colorado Department of Transportation arranging a special shipment schedule through the construction project on U.S. 50 in Little Blue Creek Canyon. Another 22 homes are under construction at the Buena Vista factory for a new community in Ouray.
There are eight houses for sale in Norwood and he only recently put them on the market, waiting until punch lists were complete before potential buyers could visit. That’s the plan for Ridgway and Ouray, too, where homes are scheduled for move-in by September and have not yet been listed for sale.
“We are going to be better in Ridgway and a lot better in Ouray,” he said.
Major didn’t start out with a plan to experiment with Norwood homebuyers. But they are teaching him lessons. He says he’s improving the process every day.
“It’s a dysfunctional system to build a house and really do any construction. We are trying to meet these incredible needs and learn along the way,” Major said. “We can’t get there without rolling up our sleeves and doing this hard and sometimes messy work.”
People from across the West are calling him every week, hoping for tips on how they can build attainable neighborhoods with modular homes.
“There are more people who want to move away from studying the problem and actually doing something,” he said. “We have a tendency in housing to do another in-depth review of the problem. We are offering something they can see and touch. We hope we are shining light that can help everyone do more.”