A Place to Live

winter photo of Telluride

Telluride contends with its housing crisis.

By D. Dion

We crammed so many ski bums into our condo in the winter of 1994 that one of us—my friend from Sweden—had to sleep in the back of my truck in our covered parking spot. In the next place I rented, we hung a bed sheet around the recessed area behind the staircase and called it the “alcove room,” and it was always occupied, even though it was barely big enough for a single bed. This was circa the era of Bus Village, an encampment of hearty people living in vans and buses on private property up on Tomboy Road. There were also a lot of “woodsies” at that time, people who set up bandit shacks in secret spots on public land, often living there year-round.

Housing in Telluride has long been a precious commodity. Amy Levek, co-founder of the  Trust for Community Housing, suggests that part of the problem is physical—a narrow box canyon surrounded by public and private land on three sides, and on the fourth, the sprawling Valley Floor, which has been preserved from development. Other resort communities have space nearby for people to live: Vail has Edwards, Aspen has Carbondale. Telluride is more geographically isolated. “We’re challenged by topography,” says Levek. “All mountain communities, all resort towns are dealing with a shortage of housing; what’s different here is our valley and the lack of available land.”

While housing has always been an issue, the problem is more acute now. And more visible—there are desperate social media posts every day from newcomers and locals who have been displaced, usually with photos and short résumés about what makes them an ideal renter or roommate, always with the disclaimer that they already know the situation is dire, that this is a “long shot.” Lance McDonald, the program director for the Town of Telluride, says there are various factors that affect the rental market—and the pandemic exacerbated them. “Each housing crisis is similar—there’s a lack of supply and high demand. In the 90s we had job growth rates that were high and limited supply. And with gentrification, the free market supply is always going down. What happened with COVID is that real estate values rose quickly, which combined with VRBO and AirbBnb seemed to further reduce the supply of free market housing.”

SUBHED: Zoomtown

There was a nationwide migration from urban areas to rural areas and mountain towns like Telluride. In 2020, real estate sales in San Miguel County were up 47 percent over 2019, for a record-breaking value of $1.16 billion. People were making a lifestyle change; they realized they could work remotely, earn the same income, and live in a beautiful small community like Telluride with all the benefits of the outdoors. Zoom meetings in the morning, skiing or mountain biking in the afternoon.

The supply of rental units and modest homes dwindled, and also became more expensive. This resulted in a labor shortage: restaurants closed, shops and stores were understaffed. Some food service became takeout only, and Clark’s grocery story resorted to self-checkout lanes. And it wasn’t just the tourism industry—without housing opportunities, it also became a challenge to hire new school teachers and other types of professional workers.

This market change didn’t just affect renters, it affected people poised to buy homes—families and young professionals ready to commit to Telluride were suddenly priced out of their town. While this trend is helping bedroom communities like Norwood, Placerville, Ophir, and Rico to flourish, it has been detrimental to Telluride. “We did economic research about the importance of having people living here, how it benefits the community and employers,” says Levek. “Commuting dilutes the community. Community is critical. It’s what attracted me to this place; the diversity. We are losing that, but if we lose it completely we’re in trouble just like anyplace else.”

Michelle Haynes is the planning director for Mountain Village. She remembers her own journey: renting a ramshackle room, caretaking, finding a starter house in Norwood, renting a nicer place in Telluride, and finally buying a deed-restricted home close to town. She compared it to the rungs of a ladder. “What I’ve observed is some of those ladder rungs are missing. People can’t find a rental or buy a unit. I think it’s important for us to fill in those gaps.”

SUBHED: Finding Solutions

The good news? There is a massive amount of new community housing being built, designed, and planned. Telluride and San Miguel County are building the Sunnyside development on the north side of the spur, with thirty rental units, which will be completed early next summer—the region’s first net zero affordable housing project. The town is also in the design or planning phase for the downtown Voodoo Lounge site, Virginia Placer Phase 2A, and soon the lot next to Clark’s Market, and the duplex down the street from Mendota and the lot next to it. And the town’s recently adopted Southwest Area Plan identified potential sites for 450-600 additional housing units, intercept parking, and other amenities. Lance McDonald points out that approximately 40 percent—40 percent!—of the town’s population already lives in deed-restricted housing. “Since the late 90s, there’s usually a project going on, sometimes two,” he says. “A lot has happened.”

Mountain Village contains 50 percent of all the provided housing in the region. The town has more than 530 deed restricted units and also plans to construct Phase IV of the Village Court Apartments, two buildings with forty-two additional units. Before Mountain Village was incorporated as a town in 1995, it was a PUD (planned unit development) and as such, many of its lots were designated as deed restricted in the approval process. While Telluride has a sales tax, property tax, short term rental tax, and development mitigation fees to fund affordable housing construction, Mountain Village has a smaller revenue stream but available land, and continues to construct community housing and incentivize its development—even waiving fees on deed-restricted single family lots. “The opportunity to find this type of housing, the quality of life living in a standalone home, is unique in the region,” says Haynes.

Telluride Ski Resort, the region’s largest employer and its economic driver, is redoubling its housing efforts. The company purchased the Rico Hotel, and bought, remediated, and reopened the Mountain View apartments (previously called Telluride Apartments) which had been condemned with mold issues. The resort already operates dormitory-style housing at Big Billies and is also planning to build units in Ilium and working with the U.S. Forest Service on a land trade for space to create more housing. The resort’s owner and CEO Chuck  Horning says he has looked at assessments of how much workforce housing is needed. “This is a very achievable number.

Our top  priority right now is housing,” he says. “Our goal is to get the housing built we need for the community.”

To boot, there is a swath of land in the Lawson Hill neighborhood west of town that is wending its way through the approval process to create additional deed-restricted opportunities.

None of this can happen quickly enough for the people who want to move to town to teach skiing and snowboarding this winter, the young artists or bartenders or chefs looking for an affordable room, or the people looking to find a forever home to start a family. But the community at large is making a concerted effort to make space available. Telluride greenlighted spots in the Town Park parking lot for RVs this winter, and voters capped the number of short-term rentals in hopes that some units would open up for residents. Everyone who loves Telluride wants to make room—even if it’s just behind a bedsheet in the alcove of a stairway, until a permanent spot can be found. Most of the people working together to find solutions already have a home, but just want to build our community. “I think the region is doing pretty good at being forward thinking, but we have not been forward thinking enough,” says Levek. “It’s an extraordinary time. As a community we’ve always been  able to rally and come up with solutions. I hope we continue to do that.”