Housing Summit, Part II: Roaring Fork Valley’s workers must have housing, and that’s employers’ No. 1 issue
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
The Roaring Fork Valley’s affordable-housing crisis is perhaps most apparent on two fronts — in the local school system and in the mobile-home parks that dot the region from Aspen to Parachute.
Morning panel discussions during Wednesday’s “Solving the Housing Crisis — A Regional Summit on Equitable Solutions” in Aspen focused on defining the need for housing in the valley and the various challenges to meeting that need.
Afternoon panels delved into solutions including a call to regional action to address the need and navigate those challenges.
For the Roaring Fork School District — which includes public schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt — considerable progress has been made in the last seven years since voters agreed to dedicate a portion of a new mill levy toward a teacher and staff housing program, said Jeff Gatlin, the district’s chief of operations who oversees the program, during one of the panel discussions at the daylong summit held in the Doerr Hosier Center at Aspen Meadows.
But much more needs to be done, he said.
The district has secured more than 120 housing units to offer qualified teachers and staff at below-market rents and, in the case of the 14 dedicated units at Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork Valley’s Basalt Vista project, affordable ownership.
However, with a full-time staff of 800 employees, including 400 teachers with a median income of $62,000 a year, that’s a drop in the bucket, Gatlin said.
Another 50 rental units are expected to come on line within the next year at the school district’s planned Meadowood housing project in Carbondale. Even then, the demand far outweighs the district’s ability to keep up, he said.
“We’re working on it, but it’s not enough to meet the challenge and the demand that we’re seeing,” he said.
Six or seven years ago, the district would typically see two applications for every unit that came available.
“The need has increased exponentially from when we started,” he said, noting that demand has now grown to 11 applicants for every available unit.
And it’s not just teachers. It’s also non-certified staff like cooks, custodians, office staff, paraprofessionals and bus drivers — many of whom live as far away as Parachute.
“We’re starting to see things emerge in our schools that are very stressful,” Gatlin said.
Operationally, the school district had 32 bus drivers in 2019. That number is 14 this school year, he said.
That means more cars on the road as parents and guardians drive their children to school — and an increased burden on student programs that rely upon district transportation.
“These are issues that are emerging in our schools, and it’s disturbing,” Gatlin said.
Mobile-home park dilemma
A percentage of the school district’s 5,600 students live with their families in some of the area’s mobile-home parks. Long considered the most-affordable housing for the valley’s lowest wage earners, including the large Latino workforce that helps drive the valley’s economic engine, mobile-home parks are more at risk than ever.
Another of the morning panels Wednesday focused on the challenges facing the local Latino community.
Liz Ramirez works as a community organizer with Manaus to help mobile-home park residents address issues with their landlords and, where possible, facilitate efforts by the owners of the mobile homes to purchase the land beneath them.
“What we’ve noticed is a lot of big corporations coming in from out of state and buying these communities in our valley, and then raising the rent,” she said.
Residents of Apple Tree Park near New Castle, for instance, have seen space leases rise from $425 per month under the previous owners two years ago to $800 under the new ownership of Investment Property Group, she said.
With 55 mobile-home parks across the region from Aspen to Parachute, encompassing some 3,000 mobile homes and housing upwards of 15,000 to 20,000 people, it’s a huge chunk of the region’s housing stock.
It’s also some of the most at-risk housing, given rising rents, new rules around the uses that are allowed and real-estate pressures for the owners to sell the properties for redevelopment, Ramirez said.
Add to the equation language barriers, immigration status and a lack of resources to take legal action whenever a homeowner feels wronged, and the challenge becomes greater.
“The Latino community works most of the time in Aspen and Snowmass, but the affordable housing here is not designed for their needs,” she said. “Mobile-home communities are that element for affordable housing, and it must be preserved.”
Tony Mendez works as a staff attorney with the nonprofit Alpine Legal Services. About seven of his hours each week are funded by a grant to deal with housing issues.
One of the biggest challenges he sees is in providing legal assistance whenever a mobile-home park resident is threatened with eviction.
Many residents don’t know their rights or don’t want to take the chance of fighting for their rights under the threat of immigration action, Mendez said.
That can lead to extortion, human-rights violations and worse, he said. Without better access and more funding for legal aid agencies like Alpine Legal Services to help fight for the residents’ rights, those things can go unchallenged, he said.
The housing crisis also impacts things like health care, transportation and even banking and other professional services.
“We’d rather not be in the housing business, but we are forced to be in the housing business because unless we have housing, we can’t get the employees we need, and we can’t provide the services for which there is a strong demand,” said Dan Blankenship, CEO for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.
RFTA now has 77 employee housing units to help the agency attract and retain bus drivers and other key workers, he said. Last fall, it purchased the 42-unit former Rodeway Inn in Glenwood Springs and is in the process of converting that to employee housing.
Still, RFTA is down about 15%-20% on the drivers it needs to operate at full functionality, Blankenship said.
Aspen Valley Hospital Chief Human Resources Officer Tom McCauley said that, for all the challenges in the health care industry these days, “the biggest threat for us right now is housing, strange as it sounds.”
Even though the hospital has 100 employee housing units situated near its campus, it could use twice that many, he said.
Only 21 of Alpine Bank’s 800 employees across Colorado work in Aspen, said Regional President Bill White during a panel discussion focused on the needs of the local business community.
Without the six subsidized housing units the bank holds and another 10 Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority units occupied by Alpine Bank workers, “it would be a serious challenge for us.”
APCHA remains the region’s leader in terms of providing the most housing units of any other government-based or nonprofit organization, but the supply is still well short of demand, said Executive Director Matthew Matthew Gillen during the opening session on Wednesday.
Of the 18 category 3 and 4 units that came available through APCHA last year, they had 900 bids, he said.
City of Glenwood Springs Community and Economic Development Director Hannah Klausman works with the newly-formed West Mountain Regional Housing Coalition, which is focused on collaborative approaches to addressing the housing crisis regionally.
Even since the Greater Roaring Fork Regional Housing Study came out in 2019, declaring a need for 4,000 new affordable housing units to be built across the region, the landscape has changed, she said.
The need for more affordable housing is even more dire following the pandemic, and it will take a regional approach to truly address it, she said.
Post Independent interim Managing Editor and senior reporter John Stroud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 970-384-9160.