Editors Note: Before we get into this article, I wanted to apologize for not covering as much local news over the past month as I would have liked to. As many of you know, I just published my first full-length novel at the end of last month, along with a novella. The last editing push to get a novel ready for publication is a daunting process and took more of my time than anticipated. But now that I have that out of the way, it will be back to business as usual for the Colorado Switchblade.
Thanks for your patience
~Jason Van Tatenhove
Mike James first came to the Estes Valley on Father's Day weekend in mid-June last year. He came to work on several construction projects for local businesses. While he knew he would have no problem finding employment, he didn't know just how difficult it would be to find housing in Estes Park.
James now works as a bartender at a local restaurant. Instead of living in an apartment or house, he has been living out of the back of his vehicle.
He is no stranger to living out of his vehicle. But that option becomes much more difficult in a Colorado mountain town when the seasons change or one becomes ill.
Living out of his vehicle was much easier during the summer season.
“During the summer, I was on the road, my stuff in storage, and I took the things I needed to get through. It was summertime, and I didn't need much gear, so I did that and took the jobs. I just slept in my truck,” James said.
Most nights, he slept in the parking lots of job sites. He sometimes parked overnight in the lots of some of the larger hotels.
“I feel safe there; summertime is so busy you blend in. No one ever messes with you, so I did that,” James commented.
His daily routine consisted of waking up and heading to the Village Laundry, where a shower costs $6.00. He killed the hours before work by frequenting local businesses to meet new people. He would work his shift until early in the morning and find another safe parking lot to sleep in. The following day he would repeat this cycle.
James moved to Colorado to be closer to his eight-year-old daughter during the summer months. He often rented a campsite in Lyons so his daughter could visit him on the weekends.
He began looking for more permanent housing as summer approached fall. He had heard about the new Peak View workplace housing project, but he says the units were gone “just like that,” with a snap of his fingers to highlight the rapid unavailability of rentable spaces. He said It was also challenging to find housing because he had not established his Colorado residency yet.
Once he experienced the reality of the housing situation in the Estes Valley, he says he was shocked.
“Coming up here, I was like: there are all these little places. But they don't rent out by the month; they want their money. I thought it would be easier to walk into a place and rent by the week. But, nope, it's 200 some dollars a night.”
Living out of his vehicle went well enough until COVID hit the area, and like many locals, James tested positive, sick, with no place to go.
“When I got sick, I was like what the f**k? It sucked. I had no support, no safety net.” It was August, and the town had an 18 to 20% positivity rate. James just ‘sucked it up’ for a few nights in his vehicle until he broke down and paid approximately $140 a night for six nights.
Luckily enough, James has recently secured housing by renting a room from his employer.
Like James, many employees come to Estes Park to work, thinking they will find a place to live here in the community. Unfortunately, workforce housing has been an issue here in Estes for a long time, going back at least several decades.
According to a press release from the Town of Estes Park that came out recently, the lack of workforce housing was enough of an issue that in 1968 the Trail-Gazette published an article stating “newcomers are challenged to find suitable, winterized apartments or homes that could be rented year-round.” The article explained the need for wintering-in tenants to vacate their homes prior to the summer season, when rental prices jumped or owners returned for the season.”
The release, co-written by Estes Park Housing Authority Director Naomi Hawf and Assistant Town Administrator Jason Damweber, further states:
“Today the conversation about housing needs with respect to both scarcity and affordability occurs at many tables across Colorado and nationwide. It is regularly discussed by legislators and decision-makers at the federal and state level and has made its way into various bills, grants, and agendas. Nevertheless, as the COVID-19 Pandemic etched its way through our communities, issues related to housing have only worsened.' Crisis’ has become a common phrase used to describe the housing situation in newspapers across the nation.”
“A lack of available housing and affordable options results in a lack of essential workers for communities and the cascading effects this has on the livability and sustainability of communities. This is a particular problem for the Estes Valley due to our relative isolation from other communities. In the Town’s 2021 Community Survey, 70 percent of respondents rated the availability of affordable housing “Poor,” and 60 percent rated the variety of housing options for those who couldn’t move here in the first place due to lack of housing.”
The housing needs of the Estes Valley have only been officially assessed four times. “Starting in 1990, then in 1999, 2008, and most recently in 2016. The first three assessments identified an average need of 800 housing units. Between 1990 and 2007, the development of housing in the community kept up and even exceeded the stated need. However, since that time, the development of housing has been stifled, in part by the economic recession following the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the 2013 flood. The 2016 Estes Park Area Housing Needs Assessment revealed that the need had doubled to around 1,600 housing units.”
In addition to outlining the need, the 2016 assessment also provided some recommended strategies to address the situation. One of the recommendations was to “Utilize Town-Owned Land for Workforce Housing.” Underscoring this were nearly 60 percent of our Community Survey respondents who asked the Town to increase its investment in workforce housing, to include land, funding, and code revisions.
Today the Town of Estes Park announced that they are in the very early stages of planning a new workforce housing project utilizing publicly owned property to meet housing needs.
Enter the Town’s “Fish Hatchery property,” a 68-acre parcel off of Fall River Road on the northwest side of the Town, of which 48 total acres are developable. The property is currently home to the Town’s Historic Fall River Hydroplant museum, four aging single-family residences used as rentals for Town staff, and a few storage buildings. The Town has considered building housing on this property for several years.
Earlier this year, the Town sought and selected a partner to plan for and construct a workforce housing development on the Fish Hatchery site. The selected firm is AmericaWest Housing Solutions, a Colorado non-profit chartered for the specific purpose of developing affordable housing projects. In a previous effort to evaluate this site for housing development, challenges were identified with the topography and limitations of the existing utilities. This time, initial plans are to build only on the north side of the Fall River and limit the size of the development to avoid those challenges. Utilizing this portion of the property, we aim to build around 190 apartments (along with other amenities like a space for childcare) that will be used to house the local, year-round workforce. While this does not come close to meeting the identified need, it would represent the largest single effort to help close the gap.
Hopefully, these plans will have some measurable effect on the housing crisis here in Estes Park.
Only time will tell.
A correction was made on Dec 6 2021, correcting the name of Peak View work force housing project.